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A Unilever Career Man

LONDON — Robert Polet’s appointment at Gucci may have left many in the luxury goods industry scratching their heads, but those who have been following the manager’s 26-year career at Unilever said the move came as no surprise. They...

LONDON — Robert Polet’s appointment at Gucci may have left many in the luxury goods industry scratching their heads, but those who have been following the manager’s 26-year career at Unilever said the move came as no surprise. They described Polet as a solid, experienced manager with a sense of style — and an ability to wrestle with big personalities.

“He’s bright, he listens and he can manage egos,” said Peter England, a Unilever veteran and the former president and chief executive officer of Elizabeth Arden, formerly a Unilever company.

“He’s ambitious and comes across with a sense of style. He’s got a sparkle in his eye and a great sense of humor. He’s a lot of fun, and very sociable, which should go down well with the designers,” England added.

Clearly, Polet also knows how — and when — to make an exit.

Earlier this year, he was passed over for the post of foods director at Unilever. The position had become vacant when Patrick Cescau was named chairman of Unilever plc, replacing Niall FitzGerald. Kees van der Graaf, who had formerly reported to Polet, was instead given the job.

“A lot of people were surprised that Kees got that job, and if I were in Rob’s shoes, I would have been pretty angry,” said one colleague. Another colleague described Polet as “anointed” among the Unilever brass, making it all the more puzzling as to why he was not promoted.

David Lang, an analyst at Investec in London, said Polet’s departure came as no surprise. “It’s not a huge shock. These people do move on. He was clearly a high flier at the company, and he’d been performing well. But you know, there are not enough top places at Unilever.”

However, another London-based analyst said that while Polet managed to boost profit margins within his division, he failed to generate consistent revenue growth. And in the consumer goods market, revenue growth is vital.

“They had some failed launches, like the Enjoy range of frozen meals, which I think just confused the consumer,” said the analyst. “But overall, Polet has a good track record, and he worked hard at getting those margins up nicely.”

In the 2003 fiscal year, turnover in the ice cream and frozen foods division — one of Unilever’s largest — increased 0.8 percent to $7.07 billion from $7.01 billion, at constant exchange rates. Meanwhile, operating profit surged 28.5 percent to $1 billion from $783 million.

All figures were reported in dollars.

One observer described Polet’s greatest success at Unilever — a notoriously political company with an odd structure of being half English and half Dutch — as “working his way up through the organization — without stepping on many bodies.”

Industry insiders say they are curious to see how Polet will find the world of fashion and luxury.

“God help him! Fashion is a small world and not an easy one, and a lot of the people in the industry do not look kindly on Unilever,” one insider said. “They think the company has no sense of style and fashion. In fact, I think it was very brave of him to take on the Gucci job.”

— Samantha Conti