Unilever CEO Says He’ll Ask Theresa May for a Longer Brexit Transition

July 20, 2017, 12:44 PM UTC
Unilever NV Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman Portraits
Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever NV, poses for a photograph at their headquarters in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Unilever manufactures branded and packaged consumer goods, including food, detergents, fragrances, home, and personal care products. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Simon Dawson—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Unilever’s chief executive Paul Polman said Thursday he intended to ask British Prime Minister Theresa May to give businesses more time to adapt to Brexit.

“We will be talking about the possibility of a longer transition period,” Polman told reporters ahead of a planned visit to 10 Downing Street, May’s official residence. He said a lengthy transition for Britain’s exit from the European Union was “becoming more realistic now.”

His comments are the latest illustration of how business has started to speak up to defend its interests in the wake of May’s misjudged call for a snap election in June to back her hardline policy on Brexit. May’s Conservatives blew an 18-point poll lead over the six-week campaign and lost their majority in the House of Commons, forcing them to form a minority government backed by a regional Northern Irish party. Since then, Conservatives who opposed Brexit in last year’s referendum, such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond, have argued increasingly loudly for a lengthy period of transition to life outside the EU, to avoid ‘cliff-edge’ effects on the economy. They are still opposed by pro-Brexit Tories who fear that a makeshift transition arrangement could become permanent, effectively leaving the U.K. entirely subject to EU law.

Read: Theresa May’s Brexit Strategy Is In Tatters—And the EU Knows It

Polman, a Dutch national, said talks will also cover how the private sector can influence the process so that complex issues – such as border taxes, intellectual property, regulations or data protection – “can proceed as smoothly as possible without doing further damage than what we have to deal with already.”

“You can imagine from where I’m sitting, as a European but having my heart in the U.K. as well, that I have some concrete suggestions of what can be done there,” Polman said on a call with reporters following release of the consumer goods company’s second-quarter results.

Read: Kraft Heinz and Unilever: Why Mega-Deals Keep Failing

“There is no doubt that the quicker we can get some of the initial issues out of the way – like financial arrangements, citizens’ rights, the issue of Ireland – the quicker we can focus on the trade side and the trade relations side,” he said.

Unilever, whose products range from Dove soap to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, currently has a dual structure, with headquarters, boards of directors and stock listings in both Britain and the Netherlands. This is under review in the wake of a rebuffed $143 billion takeover bid from Kraft Heinz earlier this year, and the company expects to say by the end of the year whether it will combine into one.

Read: What Unilever Is Doing to Keep Shareholders Happy After Turning Down Kraft

Kraft Heinz’s management had accused Unilever of a lack of focus that had allowed margins to slip and growth to slow. The Anglo-Dutch company has upped its game a little since then. For the first half of the year, it said gross margins had improved by 180 basis points to 17.8 percent (a basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point), helped by an acceleration of its cost-savings and productivity programs, and by a 130 basis point drop in brand and marketing spending.