Unilever N.V. is the numero uno Unilever. It has joint custody of food and personal care products giant Unilever. Along with Unilever PLC, the Netherlands-based firm operates Unilever as a joint venture. The three companies operate as the Unilever Group, which has a single board of directors and one set of financial statements. Unilever holds the No. 1 spot in manufacturing dressings, savory, and spreads with brand names Hellmann's, Knorr, Wish-Bone, and Ragú. Its other top products include ice cream (Breyers, Ben & Jerry's), tea (Lipton), soaps (Dove, Lux), and Sunsilk (hair care). The company holds a leading position in laundry detergents. Unilever also operates tea and oil plantations.
The company boasts a vast products portfolio. In 2008 13 of its brands logged $1 billion or more in revenue. These were Knorr, Hellmann's, Lipton, Becel/Flora (Healthy Heart), Rama/Blue Band (Family Goodness), Wall's/Algida (Heartbrand), Omo, Surf, Dove, Lux, Rexona (including Sure and Degree), Axe/Lynx, and Sunsilk (including Seda and Sedal).
Unilever's primarily a food maker that participates in other niches to diversify. It generated 54% of its 2008 sales from food items while home and personal care products brought in the remaining 46%. The manufacturer's savory, dressings, and spreads segment (35%) logged the most revenue in 2008, followed by personal care (28%), ice cream and beverages (19%), and home care (18%).
Building upon its non-food offerings, the company agreed to acquire Sara Lee's body care products and European detergents business for about €1.3 billion (nearly $2 million) in cash. The deal, which includes the Sanex, Radox, and Duschdas brands, is subject to regulatory approval by the European Commission, which is expected to rule on transaction by October 2010. The brands earned Sara Lee about €750 million ($1 billion) in revenue in 2009. Unilever looks poised to expand the market of its new goods in developing countries, where Sara Lee cultivated about 15% of personal care product sales.
During the past few years, Unilever has felt intense heat on the competitor front, despite its leader status in the consumer products arena for many years. When The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) acquired The Gillette Company -- overnight making P&G the largest consumer products maker in the world, ahead of Unilever -- Unilever launched a restructuring. The company also made sweeping changes to its leadership organization and abandoned its dual chairman/CEO structure that had been in place for decades. Antony Burgmans, chairman, stepped down and was replaced by Ericsson chairman Michael Treschow in 2007. Patrick Cescau, the company's CEO, retired at the end of 2008 and was replaced by Paul Polman, an executive at Nestlé USA, who strategically had logged 26 years of experience at P&G.
To compete with rival P&G and climb back on top, Unilever in mid-2007 implemented a four-year plan that involved slashing some 20,000 jobs (or a tenth of its workforce) and selling off slow-growth businesses. Its job cuts were to be focused on Europe.
As part of its strategy to dispose of non-strategic brands, Unilever is clearing its pantry. The company sold its Boursin cheese-making business in early 2008. In August 2008 Unilever sold its Lawry's and Adolph's seasoning brands to McCormick & Company for about $604 million in cash. It sold off of its North American laundry business, which includes the All, Wisk, Sunlight, Surf, and Snuggle brands, to private-equity firm Vestar Capital Partners in September 2008 in return for about $1.45 billion in cash and preferred stock in Sun Products (a new company formed by the integration of the Unilever laundry business and Vestar's Huish Detergents). Unilever made the move to focus on its laundry business in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The transaction includes the fabric-cleaning brands, as well as Unilever's manufacturing plant in Baltimore. Unilever also sold its Bertolli olive oil and vinegar business to SOS Group for some $1 billion in December 2008. The deal is structured as a perpetual brand license by Unilever. The firm retained the Bertolli brand for other foods such as pasta and frozen meals until mid-2012, when it sold the brand (alongside its P.F. Chang's frozen food business) to ConAgra for $267 million.
Additionally, in some cases Unilever has rewritten its expansion plans into certain countries. Despite efforts to expand its reach into the European chilled-products market in recent years, Unilever announced in 2007 that due to stalled growth it planned to divest its European frozen foods unit, while retaining its similar business in Italy. Its decision to keep a foothold in Italy is due, in part, a need to maintain a presence in the country to promote future trade relations there. Unilever also sold its Spanish frozen foods business to Bonduelle for several million euros in 2006 and sold the majority of its Western European frozen foods business to private-equity firm Permira for more than $2.2 billion. (The transaction included the Iglo and Birds Eye brands in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK.)
The company has earlier purged a handful of hair care brands, signaling that it's not very interested in maintaining a portfolio rich in the hair care niche. Unilever sold its Finesse and Aqua Net brands in 2006 for some $130 million. (The two brands had generated more than $85 million in 2005 for Unilever, which retained the Aqua Net brand in Mexico.) Lornamead picked up the two hair care products to breath new life into the "heritage" brands through rebranding and increased marketing. The company also sold its Unilever Cosmetics International business to Coty in 2005 for some $800 million.
Shares of Unilever N.V. trade in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. Unilever N.V. has an 85% stake in Unilever Indonesia.