Niall FitzGerald

By Davidson, Andrew | Management Today, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Niall FitzGerald

Davidson, Andrew, Management Today

New objectives, a new management structure, successful businesses sold off - nothing is sacred, not even Lever Bros, the cornerstone of the business

The Irish are coming. Gerry Robinson at Granada. Terry Leahy at Tesco. Peter Sutherland at BE Terry Neill at Andersen s. Sir Christopher Bland at the BBC. 'And me,' says Niall FitzGerald, with a little tortoise-smile and a twinkle in his dark, hooded eyes. Earlier this year, he reminds me, barely months after he had started as chairman of Unilever, he was being told to push off 'back over the Irish Sea' by Sir Norman Tebbit because of his views on Europe. Now, well, things are changing quite fast.

But hang on - I've met Sir Christopher Bland, and he is about as Irish as I am (that is, not very). FitzGerald is stretching it a bit, isn't he? His Guinness-black brows beetle for a millisecond then he lets out a long, infectious guffaw. 'Well, you know what I mean,' he says finally, with a little Limerick laugh. 'I could name a lot more and seriously, it's a great tribute to this country.'

I suspect you have to be careful with FitzGerald. He is such an engaging talker that you could happily find yourself agreeing with all sorts of garrulous nonsense. Beneath the loquacious charm, however, there is a drive and ambition that has terrified some of his colleagues and swept all before him in his march up Britain's biggest consumer goods company. Now he is in the process of overseeing some of the largest changes Unilever has ever witnessed: new objectives, new incentives, new management structure. That he has managed it as an Irishman (Unilever chairmen have only ever been British or Dutch), a non-marketer and as the executive most personally linked to Unilever's biggest sales disaster, the [pounds]57-million write-off of Persil Power in the early '90s, makes it all the more remarkable.

He has been boss - co-chairman as they put it in Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company run jointly out of London and Rotterdam - since 1996, sharing the title with his Dutch counterpart Morris Tabaksblat. Three years ago he led the internal working party that recommended reorganising the structure of the group, which has long been admired for the rigorous marketing of its washing powders, cosmetics and food, but was fast losing sales growth. Last year he took charge of pushing the changes through and began the long process of explaining the new Unilever, current turnover [pounds]33 billion, to staff, press and City.

His aims, he says, are simple: to encourage the group to concentrate on squeezing more value out of its investments, to perform with more entrepreneurial gumption at the local level, and to exhibit more strategic vision. He has also championed a radical reorganisation of senior executive responsibilities, sweeping away a system of worldwide business coordinators and regional directors and replacing them with a single team of 14 business presidents. He has listed those businesses which are not performing acceptably and announced that they have until September 1998 to come up to scratch or be sold. And he has insisted that the company's focus will move away from mature markets in the West towards the greater possibilities for long-term growth in the developing world. In case anyone didn't believe him, he then pushed through the sale of one of the group's most successful arms, speciality chemicals ([pounds]443 million operating profit on [pounds]2.9 billion turnover), saying it required too much investment to generate significant long-term returns and Unilever now needed to concentrate on getting more out of less. In other words, it needed to emphasise value management and focus, those two fashionable touchstones of City sentiment. For a group that now employs more than 290,000 staff working in 200 subsidiaries operating in over 90 countries, and which made a respectable [pounds]2.7 billion pre-tax profit last year, it is a brave programme, to say the least.

So, quite some first year. …

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