LONDON, United Kingdom — Unilever named personal care head Alan Jope to succeed Paul Polman as chief executive, choosing a safe pair of hands to guide the consumer-goods giant into the future after a turbulent period.
Jope, 54, is a surprise choice to run the maker of Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, as market speculation had focused on other internal candidates. He takes over after Polman, who is 62, fended off an unwanted takeover bid from Kraft Heinz and backed down on a plan to consolidate the Anglo-Dutch company’s headquarters in Rotterdam.
The shares rose as much as 0.6 percent early Thursday in Amsterdam and are up about 5 percent for the year.
The appointment of Jope, who’s sought to increase Unilever’s profitability by assembling a division called Prestige through acquisitions of high-end skincare brands such as Ren and Dermalogica, comes at a time when activist investors and companies like Kraft Heinz are pushing the industry to widen profit margins. Polman, who has run the company for nearly a decade, has been a champion of sustainability initiatives.
Jope brings a digital sensibility to the chief executive suite, having pushed the use of new marketing tools to connect with millennial consumers. Last year, he founded a tech hub in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood to focus on online communications for brands such as Dove and Axe shower gel. Insights gleaned from that team were also used to support new labels such as Love Beauty and Planet, an environmentally friendly personal care line.
Jope used to run Unilever’s China operations, whose performance under the chief-executive-in-waiting has received praise from Polman. The executive also has experience in the company’s food arm, giving him knowledge of both of its key business areas. But market speculation had focused on other internal candidates such as Chief Financial Officer Graeme Pitkethly and food and refreshments chief Nitin Paranjpe.
The personal care division was the company’s largest last year, with sales of 20.7 billion euros ($23.6 billion), almost double the food business and just under half the company’s total revenue. The unit has become a breeding ground for British chief executives, with previous leader Dave Lewis being named head of Tesco in 2014.
Under Polman, Unilever has revamped its portfolio with the acquisition of niche brands such as organic tea maker Pukka Herbs and Sir Kensington’s condiments, racing rival Nestle to capitalise on consumer demand for healthier, higher-value products as mainstream brands stagnate.
The decision on the new chief executive, which followed a yearlong search, was finalised Wednesday at a board meeting at Unilever’s North America headquarters in New Jersey. The appointment is effective January 1. Polman will support the transition in the first half of 2019, the company said.
By Thomas Buckley; editors: Eric Pfanner and Marthe Fourcade