CEO Daily: Thursday, 6th April
Unilever unveiled measures to placate investors this morning, in the wake of its takeover battle with Kraft Heinz, seen by many as a battle for the soul of capitalism.
Unilever CEO Paul Polman made the company a model for business that looks beyond shareholders—as Vivienne Walt’s story in Fortune’s February issue powerfully illustrated. (Read Paul Polman’s Plan to Save the World, here.) It was a stance that earned him praise in many quarters, but also caused unrest among shareholders, and opened the door to the $143 billion takeover bid. On the other side of that fight was Brazilian private equity firm 3G, known for its ruthless delivery of cost cuts and profits. (As Fortune’s Geoff Colvin describes here. ) Polman beat back the attack, but is now making a serious nod to his investors.
Polman said the company would sell its margarine business, buy back roughly $5 billion in shares, increase its dividend, accelerate cost cutting, and aim for substantially higher profit margins. The company also said it would review its complicated dual-headed legal structure, based in both Rotterdam and London, which adds costs but makes takeovers more difficult.
More news below.
• Xi Comes to Mar-a-Lago
President Donald Trump will welcome China’s counterpart Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago later Thursday for what Trump himself as billed as “very difficult” talks. Trade and currency issues will vie for top billing with the growing threat to U.S. allies in Asia from North Korea. Fortune’s Annalyn Kurtz has put out a useful explainer on why the President is likely to back down from his threat to label the country a “currency manipulator,” an act that would be tantamount to declaration of a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. Fortune
• Stocks Fall on Fed Balance Sheet Worries
Stocks fell after the minutes of the last policy-making meeting at the Federal Reserve showed it's minded to start shrinking its $4.5 trillion portfolio of bonds later this year. All other things being equal, that will withdraw liquidity from financial markets and push long-term interest rates higher. It would be an effective tightening of monetary policy without raising the official Fed Funds target rate, and one that comes earlier than many expected. Bond yields fell yesterday though, as signs of difficulty in enacting tax reform dimmed hopes of a fiscal stimulus. Reuters
• Revenge of the Grown-Ups
President Donald Trump dropped strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council in a shake up that also saw key military and intelligence personnel restored to their traditional positions. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, will now rejoin the NSC, as will Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Reports cast the reshuffle as a victory for national security advisor H.R. McMaster over the more unorthodox, ‘alt-right’ tendencies within the administration. It’s not clear what triggered the decision, but this week’s tensions over North Korea and Syria have made clear in no uncertain terms the need for professional rigor in foreign and defense policy. Fortune
• JAB Adds Panera to its Basket
Bakery-café chain Panera Bread agreed to a $7.2 billion takeover by JAB Holdings, a German private equity firm owned by the reclusive Reimann siblings. The Reimanns, together with senior managers who are co-investors, are steadily building a portfolio of premium consumer-focused names that already includes control of, or major stakes in, shoe-makers Jimmy Choo and Bally, beauty group Coty, and two of the world’s biggest coffee merchants, Jacobs Douwe Egberts and Keurig Green Mountain. Panera adds to a food business that includes Krispy Kreme and bagel maker Einstein Noah Group, albeit the price tag is much higher. Fortune
Around the Water Cooler
• Bezos's Bill for Blue Origin
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said he’s selling about $1 billion worth of the internet retailer's stock annually to fund his Blue Origin space-tourism company. It’ll be a while before he makes his money back, as the start of test flights, originally scheduled for this year, is now likely to get pushed back to 2018. But given that his holding in Amazon is still worth $75 billion, it’s a fair guess that he won’t bankrupt himself in the process. Amazon’s market value is now greater than that of Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco combined (albeit much of that value is ascribed to the fast-growing cloud-hosting business). Fortune
• Boeing, JetBlue Back the Battery-Powered Airliner
Boeing and JetBlue have invested in a three year-old startup that wants to develop batter-powered airliners. Zunum Aero is proposing regional aircraft capable of flying between 10 and 50 passengers up to 1,000 miles. The jets primarily operate on battery power with an aviation diesel or turbine range-extending power generator available as backup, if needed. Zunum reckons it can cut airline costs by over 40% by cutting plane size and switching fuels and (another important consideration) cut noise levels by as much as 75%. The technological challenges are, it goes without saying, immense. Fortune
Few areas of business throw out such regular reminders of their creative genius as advertising, but yesterday is not a day the industry will look back on with any fondness. Pepsi withdrew an ad featuring reality TV star Kendall Jenner after protests that it trivialized the Black Lives Matter campaign (or indeed any protest against state brutality), while Nivea, owned by the German group Beiersdorf, pulled an ad with the slogan “White is Purity” that was aimed at its Middle Eastern customers. The latter notion, of course, has been a commonplace of European, Chinese, Indian, and much African art and culture over centuries. That will be scant consolation to the agency concerned, after seeing the theme picked up by social media accounts linked to white supremacism. Fortune
• A Smarter, Gentler Taser
On the subject of image projection, TASER International, the company that makes electrical weapons for police officers, has decided to rebrand itself “Axon”. Ostensibly it’s a nod to the growing importance of the brand under which it sells body cameras, patrol car cameras, and software to its police clients. That now accounts for nearly a quarter of revenues. With a bit of ingenuity and recutting—who knows?—maybe that Kendall Jenner ad could be rescued yet. Fortune
Summaries by Geoffrey Smith; email@example.com