- Sector: FMCG/Retail
- Residence: UK
The 59-year-old Dutchman has raised eyebrows during his six-year tenure by placing a radical utopianism at the heart of Unilever’s agenda. For this, Salt commends him.
Under Polman’s leadership the world’s third largest FMCG company has an ambitious vision to fully decouple its growth from its overall environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
He aims to double Unilever’s sales to €80 billon a year, but also halve the environmental footprint of the group’s products, a tough ask which left many shareholders concerned about his priorities.
“We’re not working for our shareholders,” he said in 2012. “We’re working for the consumer, we are focused and the shareholder gets rewarded.”
He also ditched quarterly earning reports: “We’re not going into the three-month rat-races,” he added.
In Q2 2015, the Anglo-Dutch firm, which owns everything from Marmite and Dove to Magnum’s Ice Cream and Persil, beat market forecasts to post better than expected sales.
Turnover rose to €27 billion, up 12 per cent, while underlying sales grew 2.9 per cent, driven by strong sales of shampoo and soap. It pushed Unilever near a record high share price, despite a slump in overall pre-tax profits.
Polman actively seeks cooperation with other companies to implement sustainable business strategies and drive systemic change.
The CEO, who once trained to be a priest, has said he plans to use the size, success and scale of Unilever to lobby global leaders for a binding agreement on climate change and the eradication of world poverty.
He admits: “What attracted me, selfishly I admit, is that I can use a company of this size not only to do what is right for the company, but also what is right for society. There was a chance to turn Unilever into a really great company, to have the kind of personal influence which you can’t have as number two.”