Unilever: a single-minded approach

Unilever chief financial officer, Rudy Markham, may not have been part of the company’s board restructuring announced last week, but he has been handed an indirect promotion.

The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant has abandoned its dual-board structure and moved towards a single chairman and chief executive, in common with most large multinational corporations.

Instead of reporting to two chairmen – Antony Burgmans in the Netherlands and Patrick Cescau in the UK – Markham will instead report to a single chief executive, which from April 2005 will be Cescau. Burgmans will take over the role of the group’s non-executive chairman.

The changes mean that Markham effectively becomes second-incommand after Cescau, in what is a hugely simplified and more transparent board structure.

The current executive committee of Unilever, together with the Foods and Home and Personal Care groups will be ‘eliminated’. As will a further 11 business groups.

Instead, full executive authority will be ‘devolved’ to the CEO and his ‘new operating team’ within which Markham will play a leading role.

While Burgmans’ appointment as non-executive chairman may raise a few corporate governance concerns in the City (he has been with Unilever for over 30 years, and observers may question his independence) the company explains the situation in detail.

‘The feeling is that although in an ideal world we would move straight to an independent non-executive, there needs to be a transitional phase and Antony can offer a lot,’ a Unilever spokeswoman says.

‘That said we do have a majority non-executive board, and a senior, independent non-executive in Bertrand Collomb, so there is an authoritative independent voice.’

On top of this, Unilever hopes it can appoint a fully-independent non-executive chairman during the course of 2007.

Markham, 58, joined Unilever in 1968. His career in the company has seen him hold down senior financial roles in all corners of the world including Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia.

His spell in the East-Asia/Pacific region saw him become the chairman and CEO of first Australia and New Zealand, and later Japan.

He was appointed finance director in August 2000, a role that also includes responsibility for IT.

The CIMA-qualified Markham has an interesting and testing couple of years ahead of him. Unilever will have to sell a lot of Marmite and Slimfast shakes if it is to make up for last week’s disappointing results.

Pre-tax profits for 2004 were down 36% to just under £2bn, which the company blamed on sluggish decision-making, a rise in discounted retailers and a wet European summer.

But at a time when American rival Procter & Gamble is going from strength to strength, the markets will demand a significant and noticeable return to form.

As Cescau says: ‘Now we have the right people in the right roles focusing on the right issues. We are all determined to return Unilever to the kind of performance the shareholders expect.’

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