He Ran an Empire of Soap and Mayonnaise. Now He Wants to Reinvent Capitalism.


Here is David Gelles’ profile of Paul Polman for The New York Times. To read the complete article and check out other resources, please click here.

* * *

As chief executive of Unilever, Paul Polman tapped into the company’s history in an effort to make it more sustainable, and profitable.

When nearly 200 top chief executives recently came out with a new mission statement proclaiming that corporations should serve more than the bottom line, they may as well have been channeling Paul Polman.

Mr. Polman is the recently retired chief executive of Unilever, which makes everything from Dove soap to Hellmann’s mayonnaise. As C.E.O. of the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company for nearly a decade, he turned around Unilever’s fortunes while developing a reputation as an enlightened corporate leader.

Mr. Polman developed an ambitious plan to double Unilever’s revenues while cutting the company’s negative effects on the environment in half. He helped rally business leaders to support the Paris climate accord in 2016. And in 2017 he fended off a takeover attempt from Kraft Heinz, another big food company with a corporate culture that couldn’t have been more different from Unilever’s.

After stepping down last year, Mr. Polman started Imagine, a consulting firm focused on environmental and social responsibility. This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York City.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in the Netherlands in the years after World War II. My parents were just married and had suffered through the war. As a result, they weren’t able to go to university. My father worked himself up to be an administrator in a tire factory. My mother was a schoolteacher. Their sole goal was to be sure that we would get our education and go to university and have a better life than what they had to endure.

When we spoke a few years ago, you told me you studied to become a priest.

I went to Catholic school and ended up being an altar boy. I liked it because when there were weddings or funerals during the week, it got you out of school. If you were lucky, you could drink a little bit of wine if nobody was looking. I started thinking I wanted to be a priest. Helping others and being in that position must have been appealing to me. I went to the seminary, but unfortunately there were not enough people enrolled, and they closed up and moved it to a different city.

What was your first job?

I was a maintenance man at night and during the weekends in an office tower in Cincinnati while I was doing a double degree, M.A. and M.B.A., at the University of Cincinnati. When I graduated, I sent out a lot of résumés to many different companies around there, and Procter & Gamble called me in for an interview. They said, “We need someone in finance in Belgium.” So I ended up in a factory in Belgium as cost analyst.

You were at P.&G. for quite a while, and then at Nestlé. What were your big takeaways from those jobs?

P.&G. started in 1837, and it’s still going strong, at a time when the average lifetime of a publicly traded company is only 17 years. The company has enormous values that permeate all levels and all places in the world that it operates. Ethics, doing the right thing for the long term, taking care of your community is really the way you want a responsible business to be run. A search for excellence would also apply to P.&G. You always wanted to ensure that you had the best products.

At Nestlé I found a totally different way of doing things. P.&G. was a little bit insular because the results until then were fairly good, so you also think you’re invincible to some extent. Nestlé is a very modest Swiss company, and thinks quite differently. It’s far more decentralized because the food business means working a lot with farmers and investing in these countries. It had a big footprint in these emerging markets, and a business model that is flexible. Food, by nature, is a little bit more local.

And how did you wind up as C.E.O. of Unilever?

I ended up at Nestlé as the chief financial officer, and then Unilever was looking for a new C.E.O. They interviewed quite a lot of people, but at the end they chose me. I insisted they check that there were no better people out there, because I knew there were. Once you get the challenge under your skin, you want to go for it. It’s an Anglo-Dutch company, and being Dutch myself, that’s how I became the C.E.O. 10 years ago.

When you go from one company to another, you learn a little bit of modesty, you learn listening skills. I could not have gone from P.&G. to Unilever. But having three years at Nestlé prepared me for the job at Unilever.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

TAGs: David Gelles, The New York Times

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.