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Unilever Chief Cescau to Retire

Patrick Cescau, Unilever’s group chief executive, will retire at the end of the year, the company has announced.

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LONDON — Patrick Cescau, Unilever’s group chief executive, will retire at the end of the year, the company has announced.

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

His intended successor, Paul Polman, who is currently executive vice president and zone director for the Americas at Nestlé, will be proposed for appointment to the company’s board at extraordinary general meetings this fall.

“He will take over as group chief executive following an orderly transition,” the firm stated.

Cescau, 59, who became the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant’s first group ceo in 2005 after combining the previously separate roles of Unilever NV chairman and Unilever plc chairman, is a 35-year company veteran.

Polman, 52, began his Nestlé career in 2006 as chief financial officer. Prior to that, he spent 26 years at Procter & Gamble, holding the title of group president for Europe from 2001 to 2005.

“Paul Polman is the right man for the job as he has a highly appropriate résumé,” said Martin Deboo, consumer goods analyst at London-based Investec, adding Polman is a Dutch polyglot and so a good fit for Unilever’s diverse culture. “He has 26 years experience with Procter & Gamble and two years as cfo at Nestlé, during which time its performance improved markedly. He’s run Americas for Nestlé and Europe for P&G — real line experience in two of the toughest markets for Unilever.

“Unilever is two-thirds of the way through its current change program, so the first job Polman will have will be to complete that transformation,” Deboo added. “The second will be to create a different Unilever, perhaps by disposing of businesses more radically than the company has been prepared to do so far.”

Cescau has spearheaded a drive to streamline Unilever, which has involved selling off noncore brands, such as Boursin cheese, planning for the elimination of 20,000 jobs over a four-year period and rejiggering the company’s structure.

“Four years ago, we set out to transform Unilever and to get the business back on track,” stated Cescau. “I believe that phase of work is largely complete, so now is exactly the right time to pass on the baton.”

“The ship is in improving shape,” Deboo said. “Patrick Cescau finally got Unilever to cross the Rubicon and transform a federal organization with a high degree of local autonomy into one which is more category-driven.”

Unilever shares closed up more than 6 percent on both the London Stock Exchange and Euronext Amsterdam Thursday.

“The reaction is quite enthusiastic,” said Rik Zwaneveld, a trader at AFS Brokers in Amsterdam. “The train is already on track and going in a good direction, so shareholders are quite positive about the change in ceo. [However], in Holland we have a saying: ‘First see, then applaud.’”

Unilever’s beauty portfolio, which includes names such as Dove, Pond’s, Vaseline, Sunsilk and Rexona, as well as household products like Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Domestos bleach, was third after L’Oréal and P&G in WWD Beauty Biz’s most recent Beauty’s Top 100, which ranked firms’ businesses by their 2007 beauty sales.

Unilever’s overall turnover in 2007 hit 40.19 billion euros, or $55.09 billion at average exchange for the period. Personal care, which was its fastest-growing category last year, generated 28 percent of revenues, or 11.3 billion euros, or $15.49 billion.

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