Key developments: Sweeping changes to Unilever's decades-old management organization; an earnings turnaround from 2004 came soon thereafter.
What's next: Relying on the breadth of products Unilever makes in keeping up with changing competition and technology.
Unilever, though no longer the No. 1 consumer-products maker in the world, has a deep enough portfolio of popular brands in several categories to keep John Rice, the company's president in the Americas, unconcerned.
Procter & Gamble's acquisition of Gillette this year strengthens its position atop the consumer-products field, but Unilever followed by restructuring its multi-continent management team and saw a substantial jump in earnings after a rough 2004. Its brands, such as Lipton, Dove, Slim-Fast, Surf, Ben & Jerry's, Skippy and Vaseline, are catalysts to Unilever's continuing success in a changing, growing market.
"Although you may not know Unilever, you know our brands," Rice said. "The breadth of our portfolio is one of the key strengths of our organization."
Rice cited the company's continued No. 1 position in the ice-cream market [with Breyers, Popsicle, Ben & Jerry's, Klondike and Good Humor,] along with extending the Bertolli and Country Crock brands into the frozen and chilled sections, respectively, as highlights of the past year. While Procter & Gamble made news with its major acquisition, Unilever focused on itself, but some analysts believe that could change.
"I think that a company like Unilever might be the one that needs to lead the consolidation charge," Jason Gere, analyst, A.G. Edwards & Sons, St. Louis, noted last month. "Unilever is going through some internal challenges. They have made some organizational changes, and they're focusing more on the organic side of their business as opposed to acquisitions."
Rice's new title as president, Americas, came along with several other management moves in February that reduced the size of Unilever's executive team. The restructuring has seemed to work well thus far.
"We are not following fashion," Unilever CEO Patrick Cescau, who's based in Europe, said while addressing stockholders in May. "We are not being forced to change. Let me assure you, the biggest driver for change in Unilever is Unilever itself."
To build sales, Rice will use a 2004 Unilever study titled "Trip Management: The Next Big Thing," which found that 62% of all food-shopping trips in the U.S. are quick. The research "reveals how and where people shop and their different needs on different shopping trips like never before," Rice said.
Rice joined Unilever in 1986, progressing from vice president, marketing for Ragu, to president and CEO of Unilever Foods North America, and now president/Americas.