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The Guardian: Pass the butty

The Guardian (UK): Pass the butty

12 May 2005

Unilever shareholders attending the food group’s annual meeting were yesterday treated to an interminable presentation about its marketing strategy and how its health and food products help “vitality”.

The fact that investors were then offered a white bread fish finger butty as part of their free lunch nicely summed up the gap between Unilever’s rhetoric and reality.

New chief executive Patrick Cescau gave an astonishingly stodgy performance that part-emptied the hall and made one long for the return of his self-regarding but entertaining predecessor, Niall FitzGerald.

One wondered whether Cescau had eaten too many fish fingers or the various other processed foods made by his company rather than heeding the advice in the company’s own leaflets, which points out that vitality comes from fresh fruit and veg.

There was little attempt to justify the miserable performance of the now scrapped Path to Sloth (sorry, Growth) strategy, but plenty of squirming over why its architect, FitzGerald, left early but still pocketed a £1.2m “golden goodbye”.

One shareholder pointed out the desperate lack of diversity on the board – 15 men, one woman – calling for new blood and ideas. He had a point.

The corporate structure has just been shaken up but top jobs are still being filled automatically by long-serving company men such as Cescau. There is an insular feel about Unilever redolent of another troubled Anglo-Dutch group, Shell, accentuated by the fact that Shell boss Jeroen van der Veer recently joined the Unilever board. This rather dull Dutchman has his own work cut out trying to turn around Shell, where he is chief executive, and that may be why he was not at the Unilever meeting.

Cescau has some time to see whether his new corporate strategy can really trigger a turnaround but you have to wonder how long it might be before somebody makes a bid.,,1481837,00.html and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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