- Alan Jope, Unilever’s CEO, announced this week he will retire at the end of 2023. The company is beginning a search for his replacement.
- Jope has worked at Unilever for more than 35 years. He was appointed CEO in 2019.
- The announcement follows a bumpy last 12 months for Unilever. During that time, the CPG sold much of its tea business, made an unsuccessful offer to buy GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer unit, teased the potential sale of its food brands, reorganized and laid off 1,500 managers worldwide, and got an activist investor on its board.
Following a long career at Unilever, it makes sense for Jope to be looking at retirement.
But given the last 12 months at the company, anyone at the top might be looking for a next step. Unilever has seen big changes, and there is evidence the company may be preparing to make even more.
After agreeing to sell most of its tea business last November for $5 billion, Unilever set the table for what would have been its biggest change yet. In January, the company made a £50 billion (about $68 billion) offer to buy GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer unit, home to brands like Tums and Centrum vitamins. A deal was never reached.
At the time, there was talk the European consumer goods giant was looking into divesting the entirety of its food business. As the offer for GSK’s unit became public, it noted in a regularly filing that Unilever’s board concluded its future direction “lies in materially expanding its presence in Health, Beauty, and Hygiene.”
During a press call about the potential move, according to Food Navigator, Jope said while the company’s food and refreshment businesses — which includes large brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Knorr and Hellmann’s — had done well during the pandemic, their long-term growth was below other areas of its portfolio.
The company has since placed all of the food brands into two separate divisions: Nutrition — including scratch cooking, healthy snacking, functional nutrition, plant-based meat and food solutions — and Ice Cream.
Throughout the upheaval, activist investor Trian Fund Management LP bought a 1.5% stake in the company. Trian’s founding partner Nelson Peltz officially joined Unilever’s board in July.
Jope spoke at length about Unilever and its prospects earlier this month at Barclays Consumer Staples Conference. He said that despite speculation, Unilever had no plans to sell its Nutrition or Ice Cream segments. Both, he said, are important parts of Unilever, and not as much of a drag on the company as assumed.
“We're very focused on growth,” he said. “We think we're in exciting shape to navigate the choppy waters that … the world is in right now, and looking forward to the next few quarters.”
But how much the company will continue to focus on the growth of its food segments remains to be seen. A new leader could disregard Jope’s preference for keeping them part of Unilever.
Similarly, while Jope said the food businesses are an integral part of the company, he’s not leaving for more than a year. This provides ample time for transactions to take place, even though Jope has said sales are not imminent. It’s feasible that Unilever’s next leader may not have much to do with CPG food at all.