Unilever CEO Alan Jope aimed to deliver purpose and profit. He stumbled on both

September 27, 2022, 9:54 AM UTC
Unilever CEO Alan Jope
Alan Jope, chief executive officer of Unilever Plc, speaks during a panel session on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
Hollie Adams—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Good morning, Peter Vanham here, filling in from Alan.

I was visiting the London offices of Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman yesterday when the British consumer goods giant announced the departure of Polman’s successor, Alan Jope. The announcement was made well ahead of its effective date (Dec. 31, 2023). But it is nevertheless a far cry from four years ago, when Jope entered the scene as the hand-picked successor to Polman to perpetuate his purpose-driven approach to management “long into the future.”

Two contested decisions in the past year shook investors’ confidence in Jope. The first was Unilever’s failed £50 billion (then $68 billion) bid for GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer health care arm, known for its Sensodyne toothpaste. Analysts blasted the pursuit as having “little justification … strategically, operationally or financially,” with some even questioning Jope’s overall CEO abilities.

The second was Unilever’s decision to sell its Israeli Ben & Jerry’s operations, torpedoing plans by the ice cream maker’s management to stop selling products in Palestinian occupied territories. That move angered Ben & Jerry’s founders and led to an ongoing court dispute, showing the limits of fully integrating the socially-minded, progressive B Corp into the Fortune Global 500 company.

The GSK and Ben & Jerry’s debacles aside, Unilever stock under Jope essentially flatlined, while its two big competitors, P&G and Nestle, recorded stock gains of 47% and 33%, respectively, over the same period. Jope’s departure is also another reminder that “you have to have purpose PLUS profit,” as Alan Murray has said—and with his mixed record, Jope may have disappointed both sides.

Faced with the recent setbacks, Jope chose to end on a rather conventional note in his parting press release, saying “growth remains our top priority, and in the quarters ahead I will remain fully focused on disciplined execution of our strategy.” That compliant tone also contrasts with Polman, who abolished quarterly earnings guidance and happily sent investors packing if he disagreed with them.

Then again, when Polman left after his 10-year tenure, he could boast a 290% total shareholder return. With such top-line performance, many investors surely didn’t mind Polman waxing on his passion of “creating a truly purpose-driven company,” his stakeholder approach, and work to “build a long-term, sustainable business” as he left the company.

More news below.

Peter Vanham


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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