Unilever has put its directors through the spin cycle, but the mud still sticks to a bilingual group in search of an identity

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The Independent Online

Investors, logging on to Unilever's website last Thursday to get the detail of the biggest shake-up in the group's 75-year history, were greeted with this statement. "'Dirt is good' is a powerful, engaging message about the necessity of dirt in our lives and the freedom we allow ourselves, and others, to experience life and grow."

Investors, logging on to Unilever's website last Thursday to get the detail of the biggest shake-up in the group's 75-year history, were greeted with this statement. "'Dirt is good' is a powerful, engaging message about the necessity of dirt in our lives and the freedom we allow ourselves, and others, to experience life and grow."

All this touchy-feely language may fit well with Unilever's leading-edge reputation for corporate social responsibility. But for the maker of Persil and Cif to promote the notion that "dirt is good" is hardly going to go down well with the investment community. Neither did Thursday's poor figures, which showed Unilever making a loss for the first time in living memory after issuing the first profits warning in its history. So would the management shake-up it announced at the same time win Unilever some much-needed friends?

In the run-up to the statement, the rumour mill was running at full pelt. The Independent on Sunday learnt two weeks ago that the group would ditch the dual-chairman structure that it had worked under ever since Lever Brothers, a UK soap and detergents maker, merged with Margarine Unie of the Netherlands in 1930.

The relegation of "Uncle" Antony Burgmans, the Dutch co-chair, to non-executive chairman, while his London-based counterpart, Patrick Cescau, became chief executive was not well received in Rotterdam. "Coup d'état," was one Dutch comment. However, streamlining the board, and the decision to have one boss for each of the operating businesses in each of the main regions worldwide, were seen as welcome, if overdue.

But stories that the revolution would go further were wide of the mark. It was said the entire group would be headquartered in London; the two companies would be merged and the two classes of shares brought together. All these issues, and more, are now going to be reviewed by a working party led by Burgmans. This team will not report until the mid-2006, which given Burgmans' well-known love of deliberation, usually using outside consultants, comes as little surprise.

"The organisation was far too complex, which was a barrier to react to changes in the market," Burgmans said, while in the same breath scotching rumours that the group would demerge into food and household products. "If we split up, we will be smaller and that will make dealing with companies like Wal-Mart more difficult."

So what will come out of this review? In Holland, the fact that Burgmans is in charge of it is seen as significant. This will be his last major role in a 35-year career at the company before he retires in 2007. "He says he wants to have a hand in shaping the future," said a senior Dutch source. "But we feel it is a bone given to him to soften the blow that he is being put out to grass."

At Thursday's results, Cescau was scathing about the strategy "Path to Growth", dreamt up by Burgmans and Niall FitzGerald, who stood down as UK co-chairman last year. "Path to Growth", Cescau said, "boxed [Unilever] in with too many targets" about earnings and margin growth. Those targets have now been ditched.

However, Burgmans will have a key role in keeping Unilever Dutch. The company will almost certainly merge into one corporate structure, but the siting of the headquarters is hotly disputed. The UK directors are lobbying for London because it is close to the City, but Rotterdam's proponents point out that the tax treatment of holding companies is better in the Netherlands. The Dutch government is also far more pro-active than its UK counterpart in fighting to keep companies.

But will the shake-up do its job? Will it make Unilever better able to compete with the likes or Procter & Gamble - which is merging with Gillette - Colgate Palmolive and Reckitt Benckiser?

"It will take more than a change in executive titles, and talk of a potential unification of the share structure, to turn around Unilever's continued underperformance," says Victoria Buxton, European food analyst at Lehman Brothers. "In the meantime, time spent focusing on these other issues is time not spent re-energising growth in the portfolio."

Andrew Wood at Bernstein Research sees another deep-seated problem. "In terms of the personalities, we see it as an insufficient shake-up at senior management level within Unilever in order to give it the cultural upheaval that it requires," he says. "Some quick calculations show that, excluding the HR director, who joined two years ago, the average age of the other seven members of the management team is 53 and the average tenure in Unilever is 26 years. This team has effectively spent all of their professional life in Unilever and has little idea about alternative business cultures and ways to get business done. We are therefore circumspect as to whether they will be major instigators of cultural change."

The revolution at Unilever has only just begun.

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