According to reports the UK’s Sky News, Unilever has already enlisted the help of headhunting consultancy Egon Zehnder International to begin the search for a suitable replacement.
Impact and legacy
Unilever’s choice to appoint Polman as CEO back in 2008 was a big change for the company, as the ex-Nestle boss was Unilever's first-ever external CEO.
He took the helm at a somewhat rocky time for the manufacturer; according to the senior research analyst for European food and household, personal care and cosmetics at research and brokerage firm Bernstein, Andrew Wood, this was a time when Unilever was both “poorly managed and perceived”.
After initiating some “substantial” cultural, management and operational changes, Polman transformed the company and its brands into a higher quality.
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, developed under Polman, has given Unilever an identity and a purpose beyond just simple financial metrics, Wood said, and should also be a driver of strong and sustainable returns into the long-term.
‘A real success story’
Head of research at Shore Capital Clive Black echoed this, saying Unilever has been “a real success story” under Polman’s direction, as seen in its share price movement - although the Kraft-Heinz takeover bid did come as a shock to the Anglo-Dutch business, and at the time prompted commentators to suggest that a change in leadership could be in the pipeline.
The partner and CEO of Swiss-based equity brokerage and asset management company MainFirst, Alain-Sebastian Oberhuber, told FoodNavigator Polman was “a strong character who was able to transform the company materially. The company is much more focused on sales growth and has improved its market position in all categories.
“The only spot on the white shirt is the last disposal of the spreads business and maybe also the dressings business”, Oberhuber added.
Unilever announced it would be selling off its spread business, which includes the brands Flora and Stork, after turning down Kraft-Heinz’s merger attempt. This was seen by analysts as a bid to reassure investors by restructuring and selling off the weaker business divisions.
From an investor point of view, Wood said Polman has been as divisive as the manufacturer’s iconic brand Marmite, which is renowned for (and heavily marketed as) dividing entire populations into one of two camps: you either love it or hate it.
“Polman engenders strongly differing opinions from investors. Some investors simply do not like him or his ‘preachy’ style on Sustainable Living…and more than one investor has remarked on a perceived ‘god complex’. However, many investors really like Polman…and consider that he will be a very difficult CEO for Unilever to replace.”
Given that Unilever has one foot – or, rather, half its headquarters – in the EU and the other in the UK, does Polman’s rumoured departure come at a potentially rocky time as the UK negotiates the terms of Brexit?
Analysts remain cautious. “[…] Clearly any change in the top chair as the UK and the EU divorce adds an extra dimension to sensitivity and any replacements immediate priorities,” said Black.
“That said, Unilever is a group that is long-standing and has dealt with the volatilities of the globe's political economy for many years and whilst we face uncertainty in Europe, the term crisis is not wholly appropriate at this time.”
Who’s queuing up to take the top spot?
When pressed to name any standout candidates that could be in line to take the top spot at Unilever, Oberhuber said he expected the board to recruit externally, and suggested three names: Wan Ling Martello, current executive vice president and CEO of Nestlé Asia, Tesco CEO Dave Lewis
or Antoine St Afrique, the CEO of Barry Callebaut.
Both Lewis and de Saint-Affrique previously held senior executive roles at Unilever, were highly regarded in the company and are said to have parted on friendly terms. They also have a deep understanding of the internal workings of Unilever and experience at the helm of a publically listed company.
However, there could be one factor working against them, Wood warned: “a reluctance of Polman or [chairman of the board Marijn] Dekkers (and the Nominations Committee) to effectively indicate that a departure from Unilever proved to be an appropriate way to advance within Unilever, ahead of executives who stayed and remained ‘loyal’”.
The ‘soup and soap’ manufacturer could also recruit internally, conducting external searches for comparison’s sake. Polman himself appeared to favour this approach when speaking to Bernstein back in 2014.
"We have a depth of talent in many of our regions now, which the investor community has become exposed to,” he said. “So the goal should be to find an internal successor, or ideally have two to three candidates internally. But if it would be me, I would also recommend to benchmark that against the external world, just to keep us honest."