How do you see the current state of the world and the impact on Unilever’s markets?
There’s no doubt that conditions are challenging right now. Sluggish economies and a high degree of geopolitical uncertainty are inevitably impacting consumer confidence and spending, which in turn is intensifying competition in the retail sector. However, Unilever has now been around for 90 years and so we are very accustomed to operating through downturns and periods of uncertainty like this, and indeed emerging stronger. Moreover, all our competitors – big and small – face the same challenges.
The key in this environment is to remain relevant to the consumers you serve. For us, that comes down to two things. First, earning trust by operating a responsible, multi-stakeholder business model. And second, harnessing advances in science and technology – and especially digital – in ways that allow us to reach and delight consumers in new and ever more inventive ways. We are firmly focused on both.
The recent outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is clearly concerning and we are monitoring developments very closely. The safety and wellbeing of our people has been the overriding priority. We are also doing all we can to ensure business continuity and our teams are working tirelessly to help mitigate the risks. Inevitably, however, there will be an adverse impact on the business although the extent is not yet clear.
As you look back, how do you reflect on Unilever’s business performance in 2019?
underlying operating margin in 2019
It was a mixed performance. Our profitability was good with a healthy improvement in underlying operating margin, strong free cash flow delivery of more than €6.1 billion and cash flow from operating activities of €10.6 billion. This is important because our model is predicated on being able to re-invest in the long-term health of the business, while also paying out a competitive annual dividend.
On the flip side, growth is also a key driver of value creation and our underlying sales growth performance fell slightly short of expectations, at 2.9%, which was naturally disappointing. Turnover increased 2.0% to €52.0 billion. While growth was hindered by a marked slowdown in some of Unilever’s high growth markets like South Asia and West Africa, these markets all remain very attractive long-term prospects for us. We are confident therefore of restoring underlying sales growth to Unilever’s 3-5% multi-year range.
What were the highlights for you of 2019?
of our management are now women
A strong performance in the emerging markets – growing at over 5% – was an undoubted highlight. We also grew across each of our three global Divisions, which was encouraging and reflects the inherent strengths of our brands and our portfolio. Our Home Care Division had a particularly strong year, growing by more than 6%, driven by some great innovations and an intensifying focus around ‘green cleaning’. The performance of our recently acquired prestige beauty brands – which grew double-digit – was also a highlight, further establishing Unilever as an important player in this highly attractive and fast-growing segment of the market.
We have set out some very ambitious goals for Unilever. We want, for example, to be a global leader in sustainability; to be the world’s best marketing company; and to be an organisation that stands as a beacon for diversity and inclusion. Seeing Unilever recognised in 2019, therefore, as a leader in multiple external benchmarks, including the GlobeScan Sustainability Leaders Survey (for the ninth consecutive year); the World’s Most Effective Marketing Company; and as recipient of the prestigious Catalyst Award (for the company which has done most to accelerate the progress of women through workplace inclusion), were all special moments – as well as a spur to increase our efforts still further in these important areas.
Where do you feel the company could have done better?
underlying sales growth in 2019
In markets as dynamic and fast-moving as ours, speed is essential, both in seizing opportunities to meet changing consumer preferences but also in responding when our business is under competitive challenge. While we do this well on many occasions and in many parts of the world, we haven’t yet developed the consistency of response that I am looking for everywhere, and this was apparent in 2019. We made some important organisational changes during the year – including flattening our market structure under a newly created Chief Operating Officer position – which I am confident will help to make Unilever a faster and even more operationally effective business.
As far as our global Divisions are concerned, while it was an excellent year as mentioned for Home Care, our Beauty & Personal Care and Foods & Refreshment Divisions both fell short of expectation – with underlying sales growth at 2.6% and 1.5% respectively – and so this is where we will be looking to accelerate growth most specifically in 2020.
In the area of diversity, we reached an important milestone in 2019 on our journey to become a gender-balanced organisation. Our management population is now made up of just over 50% women. Pleasing as this is, the overall figure masks the fact we haven’t yet made the progress we want at the most senior levels of the company, where women are still underrepresented. This is very much a job half-done therefore and something I intend to make a personal priority in 2020.
What steps are you taking to accelerate growth?
people reached through our health and hygiene programmes since 2010
We’re doing a lot. I’ve already mentioned speed. There are two other areas I would highlight. First, we are putting a heightened level of focus around some proven growth fundamentals, which we are confident will accelerate our topline performance. These include making our innovations even more impactful; building our presence in faster-growing retail channels, like e-commerce; ensuring that more and more of our brands have a clearly articulated purpose that resonate with consumers; and driving our savings programmes further to help fuel the many growth opportunities we have.
The second relates to our portfolio. We have made significant changes over recent years, acquiring businesses in new parts of the market and disposing of businesses such as Spreads. The overall effect has been to improve Unilever’s exposure to faster growing markets, those that offer better long-term prospects for value creation. We will continue that process, evaluating our portfolio rigorously against a range of exacting criteria. It is in that context that we have announced a strategic review of our global tea business, which has a large footprint in the slower growing black tea segment and a history of being dilutive to Unilever’s overall growth and margin. We will explore all options, with an open mind and with the intention of sharing the conclusions of the review by the middle of 2020.
How are you planning to take forward Unilever’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability?
grid electricity from renewables on 5 continents
Under the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) we have developed an enviable reputation for leadership on these issues. We now mean to build on that, not least because many of the challenges the world faces – like the climate crisis or growing inequality – are becoming ever more pressing.
We will do this by embedding sustainability in a new purpose-led, future-fit Unilever Compass strategy, and in two principal ways. First, we will continue to use our size and scale to help drive change through our extended value chain. A great example last year was the ambitious commitment we made to address the issue of plastic packaging by halving our use of virgin plastic and by helping to collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell, both by 2025.
Second, we will make our product brands even more prominent vehicles for driving social and environmental change. Many of our brands already do this, to great effect, but we now intend to make it an integral feature of every brand. We know that it works and that it also helps to drive growth. Last year, our most purposeful brands grew faster than the rest of the portfolio. Unilever’s brands touch the lives of two and a half billion people every day so the opportunity for us to influence behaviour and drive positive change is enormous.
I am very proud of all the women and men of Unilever – and the millions more we partner with throughout the value chain – who work so hard every day to bring these commitments to life and who are determined to show that Unilever can remain a force for good in the world.