Unilever streamlines its boardroom as sales stall

THE ANGLO-DUTCH consumer products giant, Unilever, yesterday abolished the co-chairmanship structure it has cherished for 75 years as it shook up its executive team in an attempt to restore growth.

Patrick Cescau, who replaced Niall FitzGerald as co-chairman of the group's English arm in October, will become chief executive, and Antony Bergmans, his Dutch counterpart, will be non-executive chairman. The company pledged to appoint an independent chairman by 2007.

The changes came as Mr Cescau issued a damning verdict of the company's much-vaunted restructuring programme, admitting it had missed its key milestone: growth. "We created a straitjacket for ourselves [and] ended up too focused on our internal targets and not on the consumer and customer," he said.

Underlying sales edged just 0.4 per cent higher in 2004, as its five- year so-called Path to Growth programme, designed to produce annual sales growth of 5 to 6 per cent, petered out.

The group, which owns brands from Lipton tea to Hellmann's mayonnaise, refused to give earnings or sales guidance for 2005 as it abandoned most of the targets it set 12 months ago. Ultimately it hopes to match market growth of 2 to 4 per cent, down from the 3 to 5 per cent it predicted it could manage last year. Its shares closed down 2p at 514p.

Julian Hardwick, at ABN Amro, said: "The market is focusing on the fact that there is no visibility in Unilever's trading prospects in the near time and that it will take time for these [management] changes to work their way through."

In the biggest shake-up to the company's executive structure since it was formed, it is slashing its executive board positions from seven to four. Three directors - Andre van Heemstra, the personnel director, Keki Dadiseth, the global head of home and personal care, and Clive Butler, the corporate development director - will leave. The new eight-member executive board will replace the 28-strong powerbase deplored by analysts and investors.

Mr Bergmans' first task as non-executive chairman will be to review the group's corporate structure in a move that could see it abandon its Rotterdam base and abolish its dual listing.

Despite falling sales in frozen foods and home care business Mr Cescau ruled out any disposals and said acquisitions were not on his agenda.

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