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Unilever’s Plan to Restore Market Share Underwhelms Investors

Unilever Plc named a new chief financial officer and overhauled its division heads.
Unilever offices in Rotterdam, Netherlands | Source: Shutterstock
Unilever Plc named a new chief financial officer and overhauled its division heads as new chief executive officer Hein Schumacher promised to revive a company whose ability to win market share reached a record low. (Shutterstock)

Unilever Plc named a new chief financial officer and overhauled its division heads as new chief executive officer Hein Schumacher promised to revive a company whose ability to win market share reached a record low.

The Dutch executive said Unilever needs to focus on doing what it does best, investing in its top 30 brands to make consumers want to buy them more.

Schumacher also ruled out any major acquisitions and maintained the company’s long-term sales guidance as the company spends more on marketing to restore its competitiveness.

The new approach marks a departure from the strategy of previous CEO Alan Jope, who was criticized for a failed effort to buy GSK Plc’s former consumer health business and for emphasizing the social purpose of brands, which some investors said came at the expense of profitability.

Unilever shares fell as much as 3.5 percent in London, trading near a one-year low. The proportion of businesses that are gaining market share reached 38 percent, the lowest ever, as shoppers stray to rival products to save money. Third-quarter sales growth was just shy of estimates.

The results were underwhelming and the plan involves no significant portfolio restructuring, wrote Tineke Frikkee, head of UK research at Waverton, which holds the shares.

Schumacher said he will reverse underperformance and strategic missteps of recent years that angered investors. He also aims to sell off non-core products, announcing the divestment of a stake in Dollar Shave Club, a razor business Unilever bought for $1 billion in 2016. The Dutch executive became CEO in July, coming from one of Europe’s largest dairy cooperatives.

Other branded consumer goods makers have struggled to sell more products as they pass higher raw material and shipping costs onto consumers. Yet Danone and Procter & Gamble beat sales estimates in their most recent quarters. Danone, which has been undergoing a turnaround of its own, on Thursday raised its full-year guidance.

Beauty and wellbeing boss Fernando Fernandez will become CFO Jan. 1, replacing Graeme Pitkethly, who had announced plans to leave. The heads of nutrition and ice cream, two of Unilever’s weakest businesses, will leave the company.

The new appointments, including presidents for home care as well as beauty and wellbeing were internal — something that could disappoint those who think Unilever needs a more dramatic overhaul.

Unilever agreed to sell a majority stake in Dollar Shave Club, an expensive acquisition of a subscription razor service that analysts derided for failing to live up to expectations.

The lagging performance of nutrition and ice cream, as well as the departure of their bosses, may heighten speculation that the businesses would be split off.

Activist Nelson Peltz joining the Unilever board appeared to make the move more likely. Schumacher, who worked with Peltz at Kraft Heinz, made no comment on the possibility of a breakup in his plan.

Schumacher vowed to increase gross margin and deliver shareholder returns in the top third of Unilever’s peer group.

The new strategy statement didn’t mention the word “purpose.” Jope, whose commitment to brands like Domestos having purpose like improving access to toilets in developing countries, drew ridicule from investors.

“I don’t think we advanced a cause for purpose by force-fitting it across every brand,” Schumacher told analysts.

By Dasha Afanasieva

Learn more:

Unilever Looks to Sell Non-Core Brands

This is the first major move by the company’s newest CEO, Hein Schumacher, who took over in July.

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