Zurich/London: Nestle SA is losing its highest-ranking executive in Asia as an opening for the top job at rival Unilever looms.

Wan Ling Martello, 60, is leaving at the end of this year to explore new opportunities and will be replaced by Chris Johnson, the Vevey, Switzerland-based company said Thursday. The shift comes as Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch maker of Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, has spent almost a year looking for a replacement for Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman, sparking speculation Martello may be trying to line up that job.

It’s the highest-profile departure at Nestle since Mark Schneider became CEO last year, the first time in about a century that the world’s biggest food company gave the top job to an outsider. Schneider’s reign has been notable for an absence of management upheaval, as the CEO said last year he thought the company had the right people in the right places.

“We regret the departure of Wan Ling Martello, and are surprised by the choice of Chris Johnson," Jean-Philippe Bertschy, an analyst at Bank Vontobel AG, wrote in a note. “We believe that this represents a temporary solution to guarantee a smooth transition."

Both Nestle and Unilever reported sales Thursday. The Swiss company’s rose 2.8% on an adjusted basis in the first nine months, matching analysts’ estimates, while revenue gained 4.5% at the Anglo-Dutch rival in the third quarter, a bit higher than the consensus.

Nestle rose as much as 0.8% in Zurich, with Unilever down 1.3% in Amsterdam.

Unilever, which began a search last year for a successor to the 62-year-old Polman, said nothing about the process on Thursday. Analysts have said the failure of a plan to consolidate Unilever’s headquarters in the Netherlands, following dissent from some UK shareholders, could accelerate his departure.

The latest numbers show that consumer goods companies are still struggling to raise prices amid pressure from discount retailers. But Martello is leaving her business zone in good condition. Her region is Nestle’s most profitable and fastest-growing, though the US-China trade war has cast a cloud over future prospects. She joined Nestle seven years ago, having formerly worked for Walmart Inc.

Nestle is promoting one of its longstanding executives as activist investor Dan Loeb says the company needs more outsiders. Third Point, Loeb’s firm, has invested about $3.5 billion in the Nescafe maker.

Martello is a US citizen but speaks Mandarin and Tagalog, having both Chinese and Filipino heritage. She also previously served as Nestle’s chief financial officer.

“We have viewed her as a change agent internally and something of a figurehead for a newer, more emerging-market and digital-savvy Nestle," wrote Martin Deboo, an analyst at Jefferies.

While Nestle’s China revenue is now growing at a mid-single-digit percentage pace, the escalating trade war threatens to damp consumption. Danone said Wednesday Chinese customs officials are becoming stricter on imports of foreign baby food, a business that both the French company and Nestle have expanded into.

Johnson is a 35-year veteran at Nestle and helped implement Globe, a program to monitor costs worldwide and boost efficiency. The promotion is a boon for him, as he was regarded as a candidate when the Nestle CEO job came up. The 57-year-old Los Angeles native, who has been heading human resources since August, also ran the Americas zone between 2011 and 2014, which was a “less-than-successful period," according to Andrew Wood, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “The departure of Wan Ling Martello is a big disappointment," he wrote. “Her departure leaves a hole that will be tough for Nestle to fill."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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