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View from City Road: Unilever speeds up its footwork

CONFUSION was rife yesterday after Unilever announced its head office reorganisation. Analysts in the City - who have seen British Gas, Burton and others announce huge head office redundancy programmes in recent weeks - assumed it was a cost-cutting exercise.

They were wrong. Unilever, which has the distinction of having a single head office split between London and Rotterdam, was once again the victim of its own failure to explain itself fully.

Far from being driven by the need to cut costs, the reshaping exercise is designed to make Unilever more nimble. Initially only 120 jobs - out of a total workforce of nearly 150,000 - will be lost in London, though more may go later.

The head office will be split into three - the corporate centre, which will continue to be split between London and Rotterdam, the national managements, which run the UK and Dutch businesses, and operations such as central buying of fats.

The UK management might remain, for the time being, in Unilever House, on the north side of Blackfriars Bridge in London, but it will be split out from the corporate centre or head office proper. The building will almost certainly be redeveloped.

Many of the operations are being dispersed and there is also a shift of resources to Rotterdam, with, for example, corporate accounting and the research management team going to the Netherlands (leaving the UK laboratories unaffected). The company says these changes have not been driven by tax considerations, but the movement of any costs offshore will not harm its advance corporation tax position.

Why is Unilever bothering? Michael Perry, the chairman, says the reorganisation should speed up the pace of change. 'If it doesn't we're in trouble,' he said yesterday.

Recent turmoil on the currency markets has reinforced the need to be quickfooted. The devaluation of sterling, for example, has prompted Unilever to switch some production of frozen peas destined for Italy to the UK. The company is also expecting a price advantage against Mars - whose only European ice-cream factory is in France - this summer. This goes some way to offsetting worries about Unilever's own Continental businesses.

The share price reaction - up 16p to pounds 11.26 - probably reflected misplaced hopes of cost savings. Investors may be disappointed once they realise the impact, though significant, will be far longer-term.

(Photograph omitted)