Paul Polman missed out on the top job at Nestle SA. Now he will be the first outsider to run Unilever Plc. The Dutchman faces big challenges. But experience at rivals Nestle and Procter and Gamble Co. (P&G) should help him give his new employer some much needed zip. The departure of Patrick Cescau, the current group chief executive at Unilever, was expected. He spent 35 years at the group, the last four as its boss. But the choice of an external candidate is a big shift for a firm that’s traditionally groomed talent from graduate trainee to grave.
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One of Polman’s first challenges will be to deal with any pique from career Unilever employees who didn’t get the top job. Manvinder Singh Banga, head of personal care and food products; and Harish Manwani, head of emerging markets, were widely touted as candidates. But the board was right to take the risk of internal disruption. Polman’s experience at more successful rivals is welcome. Cescau leaves a legacy of improving sales and margins and fending off break-up calls. Still, Unilever’s share price in the past decade has underperformed more nimble European peers.
The new recruit will try to inject some of those rivals’ vitality. Unilever’s flabby global supply chain and unfit healthy foods business are places to start. Polman arrives from Nestle Americas, where Unilever’s recently threw in the towel on the US laundry-detergent business. Its brands couldn’t keep up with market leader P&G. A rematch could be in the offing.