Unified Unilever Looks to Make Larger Deals in Break With Past

For a company born almost a century ago out of a cross-border merger, Unilever Plc has remained reluctant to embrace transformational deals. Relative to its size and sprawling portfolio spanning Axe deodorant and Knorr stock cubes, Unilever was long satisfied with rounding-error acquisitions that filled a niche.

After unifying its headquarters in London late last year and shedding a cumbersome legal structure that hampered its ability to carry out major takeovers, the company is now rethinking that approach. Two years into his term as chief executive officer, Alan Jope is starting to game-plan bigger and bolder deals that have the potential to dramatically change the world of personal-care, nutrition and convenience-food conglomerates.

Unified Unilever Looks to Make Larger Deals in Break With Past

“Our day job is driving value from the portfolio that we have today, but of course unification opens up opportunities that wouldn’t have been there before,” Jope said in an interview. “You need the stars to align on strategy, value creation and timing for any big deal to go ahead — so we’re not going to force the pace, but of course we’re constantly looking at transformational opportunities.”

The global consumer-goods industry is at an inflection point. While the pandemic and its soaring demand for mass-market hygiene and comfort food has been kind to owners of old-line brands, pressure is building from agile disruptors. Seemingly spawned overnight on Instagram, their marketing message of premium, organic and local resonates with younger shoppers averse to big business. And as spending gradually shifts away from staple workhorse brands, consolidation stands to become a more common feature in an industry seeking efficiencies by combining purchasing, manufacturing and distribution power.

Premium Brands

A Unilever lifer, Jope has made his mark as a dealmaker. While running the Beauty and Personal Care division, the company’s largest, he acquired high-end skincare brands including Ren, Dermalogica and Murad under a subsidiary called Prestige, which now generates about 700 million euros ($840 million) in annual sales.

Unified Unilever Looks to Make Larger Deals in Break With Past

At Nestle SA, Chief Executive Officer Mark Schneider has been quicker to reshape the Swiss conglomerate by strengthening its coffee business with a $7 billion licensing accord involving Starbucks Corp.; spending billions on assets for its health push; and moving to divest parts of the water business.

Larger deals for Unilever would mark a departure from a tamer portfolio pruning under Jope predecessor Paul Polman. Near the end of his 10-year tenure, Polman had earmarked between 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) and 3 billion euros annually for upstarts such as Dollar Shave Club and a roster of health-focused brands. But it remained small fry for a company with annual revenue in excess of 50 billion euros.

Polman also long resisted calls to cull laggard subsidiaries. Then an unsolicited takeover bid in 2017 from Kraft Heinz Co. shocked Unilever into action. It sold its perennially struggling spreads business to private equity a year later.

Positive Force

Unilever was among the first major consumer-goods companies expressing a mission to be a positive force in society, arguing that more than a better corporate image, the approach ultimately enhances the value of its products. As part of this drive Unilever aims to achieve 1 billion euros in sales by 2025 from plant-based foods alone. In a presentation to investors on Feb. 4, Jope outlined this area as a key growth driver, giving a hint of where purchases may occur.

Unified Unilever Looks to Make Larger Deals in Break With Past

But before any major deal is struck, Unilever will need to improve the performance at the hundreds of brands critical to its future, including more than a dozen that generate in excess of 1 billion euros in annual sales, such as Dove soap. Then there are higher costs to contend with for ingredients such as tea and palm oil, as well as restructuring expenses weighing on profitability.

Only by achieving a more consistent rate of return will Unilever have the support from investors to carry out major buyout plans, said Warren Ackerman, an analyst at Barclays who leads the bank’s consumer staples coverage in Europe. Still, consolidating the previously unwieldy structure in the U.K. gives the company more room to maneuver, he said.

“The way I view unification is much more about optionality around bolder portfolio change,” Ackermann said. “In the event that bigger things come up, they should be a lot more nimble and agile.”

Slow Movers

Selling slow-moving brands, a process also facilitated with a single headquarters in London, has become a priority for Unilever. The company had maintained twin bases since the 1930 merger of Margarine Unie of the Netherlands and U.K. soap maker Lever Brothers which prevented some options, such as initial public offerings, to dispose of assets. An IPO of the tea division, which has historically generated about $3 billion in sales from brands including Lipton and PG Tips, is a “highly likely outcome,” Jope said.

Unilever is also working with Credit Suisse on a potential disposal of some beauty brands in the U.S. and Europe with combined revenue of about $600 million, people familiar with the matter said in January.

Continuing with his predecessor’s credo, Jope wants each brand to identify its social or environmental purpose to increase its appeal. In turn, he’s pledged to consider selling lines that can’t find a higher calling than purely earning a profit. Unilever says its purposeful labels now grow at more than twice the pace of those that have yet to find their footing with eco-conscious shoppers.

“There’s so much value trapped in our current, beautiful portfolio,” Jope said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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