Unilever's Polman Mends Fences After Joust With Goldman Analyst

(Bloomberg) -- After striking a pugnacious tone at Unilever’s capital markets day last year, Paul Polman extended an olive branch in his final investor presentation as chief executive officer of the consumer-goods giant.

Polman, who’s preparing to hand over to Alan Jope in January, told analysts and shareholders that he’d been texting his wife Kim about how to leave things. Her view was, “When in doubt, hug it out,” the departing chief said as he tried to mend a relationship that was tested last year when he told analysts they were “pissing away” the possibility of higher returns by scorning Unilever’s cost-cutting efforts.

Unilever's Polman Mends Fences After Joust With Goldman Analyst

“Let’s respect each other,” Polman said at the latest investor day in Mumbai, where he sported an open-neck shirt, his jacket lapel pinned with a United Nations sustainable development goals roundel.

Read more: Unilever CEO did well by doing good: Polman’s legacy

The symbol alluded to one of the CEO’s favorite themes -- that shareholder value and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive. The company’s stated mission of improving society can even result in cost cuts, he said, as when the company invested in renewable energy to avoid carbon taxes.

In handing over to personal-care chief Jope, the 62-year-old Dutchman is ending a nearly decade-long tenure during which he crisscrossed the world to meet with heads of state and form alliances with non-profit groups to promote capitalism with a feel-good twist. He directed Unilever to install toilets in Africa through its Domestos brand and encouraged Asian schoolchildren to wash their hands -- using the company’s Lifebuoy soap -- to reduce disease spread.

Kraft Heinz

That approach was strained by an unsolicited takeover approach last year from Kraft Heinz Co., which has a reputation for lifting earnings through cost-cutting. Polman fended it off, but some investors questioned his commitment to shareholder value. At last year’s capital markets day in New Jersey, he raised his voice and offered the vulgar riposte when a Goldman Sachs analyst questioned him on the balance of cost-cutting, margin improvement and sales growth.

Polman was also criticized for failing to gauge investor sentiment over a plan to consolidate the Anglo-Dutch company’s headquarters in the Netherlands, which collapsed in October. He moved on from that setback this week with a $3.8 billion deal for GlaxoSmithKline Plc brands like malted-milk drink Horlicks, which is associated with wellness in India.

Polman acknowledged that he might not always see eye to eye with analysts and investors, but said they could agree to disagree.

“I wouldn’t want your job, but you probably wouldn’t know how to do ours, either,” he said. “I thank you for the constructive challenges, most of the time.”

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