Unilever picks Ericsson boss as chairman

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The Independent Online

Unilever is poised to appoint its first independent chairman in its 80-year history after a protracted search settled on Michael Treschow, the Swedish head of Ericsson, for the role.

Mr Treschow has been lined up to replace Antony Burgmans as chairman of the consumer goods giant when he steps down in May. Analysts are keen for an independent chairman to push through a recovery strategy at the Anglo-Dutch company, which still has much to prove to the City.

An overhaul of the group's corporate structure saw it appoint its first chief executive, Patrick Cescau, and end the governance quirk that previously saw Mr Burgmans share the top job with Niall FitzGerald, who left to become the Reuters chairman.

The slow pace of change at the company, founded in 1930 by the merger of Britain's Lever Brothers and Holland's Margarine Union, has frustrated some followers. The choice of a chairman with such a low UK profile may disappoint those hoping for further strategic soul searching. But Mr Treschow, who used to run Electrolux and Atlas Copco, is well known across continental Europe, which will count in his favour in the Netherlands, as will his experience in turning round his former charges.

The search was led by Lord Simon, a Unilever non-executive, who is understood to have ruled himself out of the running early on. A company spokesman would not comment, saying only: "We can't confirm any details but we are in the final stages of the selection process."

Unilever is coming under further pressure from the rash of consolidation deals that have swept its sector. The acquisitive Premier Foods this month announced plans to acquire RHM, the company behind Hovis bread.

Mr Cescau has made some headway in improving Unilever's fortunes. The company has sold its frozen food division and cut thousands of jobs. Third quarter sales were well received in the City and the group's shares have rebounded.

The company is targeting sales growth of between 3 and 5 per cent and operating margins of more than 15 per cent by 2010. This falls short of the more ambitious targets it set itself under Mr FitzGerald, which it later abandoned, and of margins reported by some smaller rivals.

Mr Treschow is the chairman of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and of Electrolux. He sits on the board of ABB, the engineering group.