NEW YORK -- Lever Bros. next month is expected to deploy its first multidisciplinary account teams designed to focus the company's most potent resources on its most important trade customers.
About a half-dozen teams are expected to begin operating by April, said several sources close to the company. Within a year that number is expected to climb to at least 20.
Bob Norris, Lever's vice president of trade development and national accounts, and John Crook, vice president of sales planning, were identified as among the key executives working on the project. Neither returned phone calls.
The company, which is based here, declined to discuss the planned account teams with Brand Marketing. Melinda Sweet, spokeswoman, explained, "We believe this information to be proprietary."
However, a strong hint of Lever's intentions underlies current trade advertising by the company, which bears a bold headline, "Customer Focus." The ad copy reads, in part, "That's why we'll work with you to explore mutually beneficial opportunities. Why we'll use our category expertise to meet your needs, not ours."
The move to customer-specific teams for key accounts would build upon learning gained from a single multifunctional "task force" Lever has been operating on a national basis for two years. That group has been working with a select number of receptive supermarket chains, mainly in the Northeast.
Observers familiar with Lever's current activities said that some
details of its account team plan are still being completed. Ken Harris, vice president of Cannondale Associates, an Evanston, Ill.-based consulting firm, described the plan as "still in a fluid state," and added that Lever was presently deciding which accounts it will work with first, and selecting which Lever personnel will participate in the early stages.
"Lever doesn't even know how many yet. Five customer teams are going to take the best sales people, the most flexible people you have in sales, marketing, operations, logistics, finance, etc.," Harris said. "The idea is to use your best and brightest to focus on the most important pieces of your business." Said another source familiar with the company: "Nobody knows what Lever is going to look like yet, but the word is to expand to six to eight teams."
Account teams build closer ties with key customers by aligning the manufacturer's experts with their counterparts at the retailers. With Procter & Gamble's two-year-old Wal-Mart team as a model, teams have been drawing much attention in the brand marketing community. So far only a few brand marketers have put together fully workable teams, and those with only a very few retailers.
Although the details are not yet final, Lever-watchers are generally praising its plan as part of a much needed response to gains made by arch rival P&G in the U.S. laundry detergent business since P&G initiated its own Efficient Consumer Response activities in 1992.
"More teaming would be a logical conclusion because Supermarkets General said Lever's team service, follow-up, strategic planning, all the way down to micromarketing, have been superb," said Burt Flickinger 3rd of the A.T. Kearney consulting firm.
Bill Wyman, president of Rockwell Consulting, Wilton, Conn., called Lever Bros. "one of the best-kept secrets in the business. They are in the process of pulling it all together. They have repositioned brands to add value and they are not afraid to invest in information to help make it happen. I would expect to see significant performance from them."
Said Kevin Foley, senior vice president of Summit Partners, a Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm, "The change I see -- and I believe this is the right way -- is that they are changing from the customer interface inward."
Les Pugh, a Salomon Bros. securities analyst based in New York, said, "I think it is the right direction to head. The question is, should it have happened sooner?"
Lever's teaming plan is being developed against the backdrop of a massive internal reorganization at parent company Unilever, which also owns consumer goods companies Van Den Bergh Foods, Chesebrough-Pond's, Lipton and Good Humor-Breyers, among others.
As many as 7,500 jobs are expected to be shed in its global reorganization, which will encompass about 60 projects in 20 countries, Unilever said.
At a presentation of its 1993 results in London last month, Sir Michael Perry, Unilever chairman, reported an allocation of 490 million English pounds ($737 million) in restructuring charges, which he said are "concentrated on businesses in Europe and North America.
"A major rationalization of our operations is being undertaken to improve efficiencies," he said in a written statement. A principle focus of the reorganization will be Lever's U.S. laundry detergents operations, which have had results described as "unsatisfactory."
A question raised by several observers is whether Lever and its Unilever sister companies will attempt to form joint account teams that would allow them to leverage solutions across household, personal care, grocery, perishable and frozen foods categories.
"Right now the teams are just from Lever," said Cannondale's Harris. "There was speculation early on that they would collapse [Lever's other businesses] together, but that does not seem likely."