President of Unilever's struggling SlimFast division steps down

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The Independent Online

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, parted company with the head of its troubled SlimFast division yesterday as it attempts to reinvigorate sales of the diet drink brand.

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, parted company with the head of its troubled SlimFast division yesterday as it attempts to reinvigorate sales of the diet drink brand.

Marc Covent, 46, will step down as president of SlimFast next month. His departure comes as Unilever takes the brand under its food wing. Up to now it has been run as a standalone business. The company attempted to dampen speculation that Mr Covent's departure was linked to a disastrous 12 months for SlimFast, which saw its sales obliterated by the surge in popularity of the Atkins diet. The group missed its key sales target for its leading brands such as SlimFast after sales of the diet drink slumped 21 per cent last year.

A Unilever spokeswoman said: "Mr Covent is leaving for personal reasons and the move has been prepared for a while. He is leaving on 1 July because that is the date at which SlimFast is being integrated into the food activities."

But the news re-centred the spotlight on the problems the group has been having with the once-popular brand it bought four years ago. It paid $2.3bn for SlimFast. At the time the purchase was eclipsed by the acquisition of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, which it bought for $300m. Observers were stunned that Ben & Jerry's founders, renowned for their "hippy" beliefs, would want to sell out to a corporate giant.

Niall FitzGerald, Unilever's co-chairman who is stepping down this September, admitted the company had been caught on the hop by the popularity of the Atkins diet. It failed to innovate, instead relying on sales of its traditional milkshake, which had fallen out of favour with the consumer's love for all things low-carbohydrate.

Unilever is attempting to recover the ground lost by launching a new range of low-carbohydrate meals under the SlimFast label. Mr FitzGerald has said the initial response has been encouraging, with the new products comprising 20 per cent of the unit's sales. The group has also created a "CarbOptions" line of low-carb versions of its Ragu sauces and Skippy peanut butters. The products are only available in the US.

The shake-up at SlimFast will mean Mr Covent is not being replaced.

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