The coverage of Paul Polman’s forthcoming departure as CEO of Unilever tells us a lot about the City. The Lex Column, in the FT, tells us that he ‘went on too much about sustainability for many people’s liking’.
Imagine criticising a chef for going on too much about food quality, or a teacher for going on too much about teaching children to behave well!
But that is the culture in parts of the London investment community, where it pays to live down to Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
Another article in the same paper (High Flying Dutchman Polman divided opinions but leaves positive legacy) praises Polman for instilling a strong performance culture when he arrived, stimulating faster sales growth as well as abandoning the short termist practice of quarterly earnings guidance.
And as a result Unilever under this CEO who ‘went on about sustainability’ achieved total shareholder returns of 282% with dividends reinvested against 182% for Nestle or 131% for the FTSE index.
Polman stood up to defend Unilever against takeover by the predatory Kraft. This experience may explain why he wanted to redomicile Unilever to the Netherlands.
I met Polman 18 months ago at a dinner in Singapore when he was there to ‘go on about sustainability’. We obviously agreed about the human version of capitalism that he stood for but what impressed me over a long conversation was how much he cared about people in the UK, and related to people in the North East with whom he had worked closely when with P&G.
He saw people like them – well trained and dedicated manufacturing professionals and craftsmen – as the undeserving victims of the UKs excessively open takeover regime.
He has also played a part in helping Charles Wookey and colleagues build Blueprint 4 Business as a great champion of the importance of purpose beyond profit and ally of Tomorrows Company.
Compare him with Jack Welch who was no doubt feted by the Lex Column at the time of his resignation but whose legacy at General Electric is the exclusive focus on short term shareholder value. GE is a testament to the truth pronounced later by a repentant Welch that shareholder value is ‘the dumbest idea ever’.
Unilever, by contrast, for all its compromises, is an enduring company which has strengthened its financial performance by working to be a force for good in society.