profile; Niall Fitzgerald; Bird's-eye view of the world

Richard Halstead meets the globetrotting chairman who is taking Unilever in a new direction
Venezuela, Colombia, India, China, Australia, Indonesia, America, Malawi. And a few more countries that he cannot remember off the top of his head. Niall Fitzgerald, the Irish-born joint chairman of Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, has a pretty daunting 1997 travel schedule, and he is proud of it. "The less time I spend in the office, and the more time in the field, the happier I am," he says. "If I sat around here every day, I wouldn't get anything done."

His frequent-flyer points will be racking up for a reason. Fitzgerald has made it plain that the future of his company lies in Asia, South America and Africa. Today, emerging economies account for around 30 per cent of Unilever's profits; within 10 years, Fitzgerald wants to see that figure rise to 50 per cent.

Somewhere amid this globe-trotting he will have to find time to oversee the sale of Unilever's chemical businesses, which could raise pounds 5bn for the company to fund its ambitions. Then there will be the strategy sessions with advisers to assess whether that cash can be spent on a big acquisition, or a myriad of small ones. Finally, Fitzgerald will have to make time to train for the London marathon in April, sponsored this year by Unilever's Flora margarine subsidiary.

Fitzgerald's urgency is symptomatic of the atmosphere at the conglomerate. For years the company has stood on its three pillars of soap powder, food and chemicals and shuffled a few brands out here, a few brands in there. Last year the brand shuffling amounted to pounds 1.3bn worth of acquisitions, including Helene Curtis personal care products and various food and ice- cream businesses, and pounds 420m of asset sales. No small potatoes in most balance sheets, but barely a blip for a pounds 34bn sales conglomerate.

The company has been saddled with a reputation as a plodder, an organisation run by bureaucrats and containing a host of brand names that turn in reasonable performances without ever being spectacular. The image has been reflected in the share price, which outperformed the market in the last recession as a reliable defensive stock but has since underperformed, particularly in the past two years.

The move to sell the chemical business, which accounted for pounds 387m of the company's pounds 2,874m pre-tax profits last year, took the City by surprise and caused a rash of speculation focusing on this question: what will Fitzgerald do with the money? Sitting in the art-deco Unilever headquarters overlooking the Thames, he confines his predictions to improving Unilever's stock of brand names (which stretch from Birds Eye frozen foods to Calvin Klein fragrances) and "perhaps some regional alliances".

But he will not be drawn on names or plans. These could include an initial asset swap with Henkel - the German chemical company that still owns the German and Austrian rights to the Persil name, something Unilever has coveted for some time - and perhaps the purchase of SmithKline Beecham's drinks business, which includes Luco-zade, Ribena and Horlicks.

It could be something more ambitious: an international merger with Danone, Heinz or M&M Mars, or perhaps with perennial domestic bid candidates Cadbury Schweppes and United Biscuits.

Fitzgerald's political views are more fertile ground for comment. He landed himself and the company in the political spotlight with some remarks about Unilever downsizing its investment commitment in Britain if the country did not participate in the single European currency.

He claims he was misquoted. "What I said was: 'If monetary union goes ahead, and if Britain does not take part in it - and those are two very big ifs at the moment - then down the road, say in 2006 or 2008, we would see Europe moving on and Britain getting left behind.'

"Unilever makes most of the soap products for Europe in the UK and most of the ice- cream for Europe in the UK. If all these things came to pass, we would have to reconsider our investment, that is all."

In business, Fitzgerald is used to playing his cards close to his chest. When he took office as Unilever plc chairman, and became the British representative on the three-man committee that runs the Anglo-Dutch joint holding company, the market view was that any changes wrought by him would only happen slowly. It was a view that was not entirely wrong, but its timing was slightly off.

"We reviewed the entire portfolio in 1996, and we realised that either we had to substantially increase our investment in the chemicals side or get out," says Fitzgerald.

"In the end we decided that our future lay in consumer brands."

Which is not to say, he adds, that consumer products will be treated with kid gloves. There are areas, like the ice-cream and fragrances businesses, that have not been stellar performers of late and others, particularly some brands in the foods business, that have been given until next year to shape up or be shipped out. There will be a genuine effort to slim down the brand portfolio into something manageable (its 1,000 or so brand names include such household staples as Domestos, Oxo, Lifebuoy and, of course, Persil) and perhaps create a "global" brand such as Nestle's Nescafe. "Whatever we do, I would like to surprise the market again," says Fitzgerald.

"It's a fascinating company, particularly because very few people understand it," says Dermot Carr, an analyst at Nikko Securities. "With its strong cash flow, emerging market distribution - Unilever has been in the developing world for donkey's years while some US competitors are only now trying to break in - and the capital freed up by the chemicals sale, there is an opportunity to create a brand tie-up that can have critical mass. "

With potential comes risk, however, and Niall Fitzgerald knows all about that. Three years ago he was in charge of the Unilever division that launched Persil Power and then beat a hasty retreat when it was shown that the product shredded clothes. His retrospective assessment is frank: "I think my biggest mistake was not seeing the broader picture. At the time, when we were under attack, my reaction was to get down in the trenches with my staff. If I had not done that I may have seen the outcome sooner."

However, he insists the debacle has not meant that either he or Unilever has become gun-shy. "We did not get to where we are today, a pounds 34bn company, without taking risks."