The UK market for soap reaches saturation point, so Lever Brothers concentrates on acquisitions instead.
Meanwhile demand for margarine continues to escalate and Lever Brothers, Jurgens and Van den Bergh increase their interests in the production of raw materials. Tough market conditions also lead to the further growth of trade associations. When new technology is invented to solidify whale oil, businesses join together in the Whale Oil Pool to regulate the distribution of this important new commodity.
But the clouds of war are gathering. The First World War is set to make a big impact, firstly through increasing demand for soap and margarine – vital wartime supplies – and secondly through the intervention of British and German governments, which effectively place the oil and fats industry under government control.
Lever Brothers buys its first company in West Africa, WB MacIver Ltd, to secure supplies of palm oil for Port Sunlight.
Lever Brother’s first purpose-built research laboratory is constructed at Port Sunlight.
The first profit-sharing deal between Jurgens and Van den Bergh is terminated but the two companies continue to work together.
Leading businesses in Europe join forces to create the Whale Oil Pool.
In the year that war breaks out, companies controlled by Lever Brothers are making about 135 000 tons of soap a year, while in the Netherlands Jurgens and Van den Bergh have both acquired a number of smaller businesses and each also controls seven margarine factories in Germany.
Lever Brothers acquires Pears Soap, a company founded in 1789, and Jurgens forms an alliance with Kellogg’s in preparation for expansion into North America. Around this time Jurgens and Van den Bergh both establish factories in England, with one in Purfleet, Essex still manufacturing margarine today. Lever Brothers also expands into the margarine market with the launch of Planters, increases operations in South Africa and sees its American business start to move into profit
By the end of the 1920s Jurgens owns margarine factories in Scotland, Ireland and England and Lord Leverhulme controls 60% of the output of UK soap manufacturing.
But during the decade the margarine market suffers declining demand as butter becomes more affordable.
Before his death in 1925, Lever Brothers founder Lord Leverhulme builds up a private portfolio of companies that include some dealing with produce from his newly acquired estate in Scotland’s Western Isles. Many of these, including Mac Fisheries Ltd, will eventually be bought by Lever Brothers.
At the end of the decade alliances reach their ultimate conclusion and the official history of Unilever begins. First, Jurgens and Van den Bergh join together to create Margarine Unie. Then two years later – in one of the largest mergers of its time – Margarine Unie teams up with Lever Brothers to create Unilever.
Lever Brothers gains control of the Niger Company, which later became part of the United Africa Company.
Lever Brothers buys Wall’s, a popular sausage company which is beginning to produce ice cream to sell in the summer when demand for sausages falls.
The collapse of the German economy creates even harsher trading conditions for Jurgens and Van den Bergh.
Lever Brothers buys British Oil & Cake Mills, one of its major competitors and the manufacturer of New Pin Soap.
Lever Brothers launches its Clean Hands Campaign. Part of its child health policy, it educates children about dirt and germs and encouraging them to wash their hands ‘before breakfast, before dinner and after school.’
Jurgens and Van den Bergh, who have already teamed up with two European businesses, Centra and Schicht, join forces to create Margarine Unie – the Margarine Union. The union quickly gains new members, creating a large group of European businesses involved in the production of almost all goods created from oils and fats.
Planters Ltd, a Lever Brothers company, launches the first vitamin-enriched margarine – Viking.
Margarine Unie acquires the French-Dutch Calvé-Delft group with factories in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Czechoslovakia. The following year the Union also acquires the firm Hartog’s.
On 2 September Lever Brothers and Margarine Unie sign an agreement to create Unilever. The businesses initially aim to negotiate an arrangement to keep out of each other’s principal interests of soap and margarine production, but ultimately decide on an amalgamation instead.
The 1930s is a tough decade – it starts with the Great Depression and ends with a new world war.
These conditions make the newly merged business’s need to rationalise even more urgent. So in the UK Unilever cuts its 50 soap-manufacturing companies to concentrate on fewer brands, while governments in continental Europe protect local butter production through taxes, excise duties and limits on production. The end result is that Unilever’s margarine and edible fat plants are cut from ten to five.
But despite the recession the business continues to expand: partly through the development of new products in its established markets, and partly by acquiring companies to take it into emerging categories like frozen and convenience foods.
On 1 January Unilever is officially established.
Procter & Gamble enters the UK market with the acquisition of Thomas Hedley Ltd of Newcastle and becomes one of Unilever’s largest rivals.
Soap production moves further from hard soaps to flakes and powders designed to make lighter work of household cleaning. This leads to expansion in the soap market.
Vitamins A & D are added to margarine, to levels equivalent to those found in butter.
After a campaign to improve public perceptions of margarine and the growth of vitamin-enriched brands including Stork in the UK and Blue Band in the Netherlands, sales of margarine rise to levels close to the highs of 1929.
With the advent of World War II, exchange controls and frozen currencies make international trading increasingly complex. In Germany, Unilever is unable to move profits out of the country and has to invest instead in enterprises unconnected with oils and fats including public utilities.
During the war years Unilever is effectively broken up, with businesses in German and Japanese-occupied territory cut off from London and Rotterdam.
This leads to the development of a corporate structure in which local Unilever businesses act with a high level of independence and focus on the needs of local markets.
After the war, Unilever’s interests in Eastern Europe are lost with nationalisation and the control exerted by the Soviet Union. The Chinese market is affected in a similar way.
Yet throughout the 1940s Unilever continues to expand in the food market. New businesses with a diverse range of products are acquired, and resources are put into research and development for new materials and production techniques.
During the Blitz, Lifebuoy soap provides a free emergency washing service to Londoners. Lifebuoy vans equipped with hot showers, soap and towels visit bomb-struck areas of the capital to offer much-needed mobile washing facilities.
Unilever becomes the majority shareholder in Frosted Foods which owns Birds Eye and the UK rights to a method of food preservation new to mass markets – deep-freezing. Years later, freezing will enjoy a resurgence of popularity when it’s shown to be one of the best ways of naturally preserving the goodness of fresh food. Around the same time Unilever acquires Batchelor’s, which specialises in freeze-dried vegetables and canned goods.
At the end of the war, Unilever is able to regain control of its international network although remains shut out from Eastern Europe and China. The decentralisation of the business that was unavoidable during wartime is continued as a policy decision.
Birds Eye launches the first frozen peas in the UK. At this time meat, fish, ice cream and canned goods account for only 9% of Unilever’s total turnover
From the late 40s into the 50s the development of new mass markets for consumer goods – including Africa and Asia – provide opportunities for expansion.
Unilever’s United Africa Company grows fast, producing goods for sale in the newly independent African states, which helps create new local manufacturing industries. Meanwhile post-war prosperity in Europe, spurred by the start of the European Community, leads to a consumer boom and rising standards of living.
As new scientific advances come thick and fast, Unilever increases its focus on technology, making Port Sunlight Research its Research Division with responsibility for both UK and Dutch laboratories. It also establishes a nutrition research group in the Netherlands which later becomes the Unilever Food and Health Research Institute – a centre of excellence in nutrition.
During the 1950s new types of food – most famously the fish finger – are developed as a direct response to the need for nutritious food that makes use of ingredients available in the wake of post-war rationing. Some of these are then marketed through a promising new channel – commercial TV.
Sunsilk shampoo is launched in the UK and will become our leading shampoo brand – by 1959 it’s available in 18 countries worldwide.
On the 22 September Unilever airs the very first advertisement on UK commercial TV, which is for Gibbs SR toothpaste.
Fish fingers are introduced in the UK and within a decade they account for 10% of British fish consumption.
Dove soap is launched in US.
Unilever Research establishes its Biology Department, which in the 1980s will become the BioScience, Nutrition and Safety unit.
The PG Tips chimps make their debut appearance on the UK’s newly launched commercial TV station. Aired on Christmas Day, the commercial is inspired by London Zoo’s chimpanzees’ tea party. It results in PG Tips becoming the UK’s biggest selling tea brand.
The first Miss Pears is crowned in the famous Pear’s Soap beauty contest celebrating the beauty of natural, clear complexions.
In the Netherlands Unilever expands into frozen foods and ice cream through the acquisition of Vita NV, which was later to become the Iglo Mora Group.
Unilever launches its first margarine in a tub, replacing the traditional block wrapped in greaseproof paper, with Blauband in Germany followed by Flora in Britain.
The 1960s brings optimism and new ideas as the world economy expands and standards of living continue to rise.
As a result Unilever expands and diversifies through innovation and acquisition, setting up advertising agencies, market research companies and packaging businesses. In 1968 it tries to merge with Allied Breweries in a truly ambitious acquisition bid. But maintaining profit stability is difficult as the gap widens between best and worst performing operations, and funds are invested to maintain low-yield businesses.
In the mid-60s, a restructure increases opportunities to grow brands internationally. Control and European profit responsibility for the biggest brands are subsequently moved from individual operating companies to category-focused teams called Co-ordinations.
All washing-related brands are placed under the control of a single company, Lever Brothers and Associates. Becel, the pioneering ‘health’ margarine, is launched after the medical community asks Unilever to develop a cholesterol-lowering food product. Initially it’s only available from pharmacies.
Good Humor ice cream is acquired in the US.
Unilever forms its own specialist packaging business, the 4P Group, turning an internal service provider into a profit earning business. Cif is launched, starting in France.
Captain Birds Eye/Iglo/Frudesa makes his first appearance in TV commercials.
Unilever attempts unsuccessfully to merge with Allied Breweries, one of the UK’s largest brewing companies.
Unilever airs the UK’s first colour TV commercial, which is for Birds Eye peas.
During the 1970s, hard economic conditions – including high inflation in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis – leads to flat sales.
The growth of large retailers including supermarkets also starts a shift in negotiating power away from manufacturers.
So Unilever continues to build consumer goods businesses in sectors including transport and packaging and has a major thrust into North America with the purchase of National Starch. Fortunately the subsidiary United Africa Company yields large profits in oil-booming Nigeria, helping balance out the costs of businesses in Europe and the United States.
But while Unilever continues to diversify in the 1970s, it stops expanding along the supply chain as third party suppliers become larger and better equipped to take over non-core tasks.
Unilever acquires the meat business Zwanenberg’s at Oss, which would eventually become the Unilever meat group UVG.
Lipton International is acquired and Unilever’s tea business becomes one of the largest in the world.
Impulse deodorant is launched, starting in South Africa. By 1985 it will be sold in 30 countries.
Mentadent is launched in Austria as a revolutionary gum health brand.
Frigo ice cream is acquired in Spain.
Unilever’s subsidiary, the United Africa Company, becomes UAC International – having expanded since its inception in the 1920s to trade in 43 countries.
By now, across the nine members of the European Economic Community, Unilever employs nearly 177,000 people in 200 offices and factories, investing in fixed assets at a rate of about UK £30million a year and spending about UK £1bn on supplies.
Signalling intentions to increase its presence in the US, Unilever acquires National Starch, a leading producer of adhesives, starch and speciality organic chemicals. It’s the largest acquisition by a European company in the US at this time.
At the start of the 1980s, Unilever is the world’s 26th largest business.
Its interests include plastics, packaging, tropical plantations and a shipping line, as well as a wide range of foods, home and personal care products.
Early in the decade in a bold change of strategy it decides to refocus on core product areas with strong markets and equally strong growth potential. The necessary rationalisation leads to large acquisitions and equally large divestments, including the sale of animal feeds, packaging, transport and fish farming businesses.
But by 1989 the resulting growth of core businesses is clearly evident.
Viennetta ice cream gateaux is first launched, starting in Britain as a Christmas speciality.
Axe body spray for men (Lynx in the UK) is first launched, starting in France.
Unilever announces its Core Business Strategy and large acquisitions and disposals follow over next decade.
Brooke Bond is acquired in Unilever’s first hostile take-over.
Unipath launches a home pregnancy testing kit Clearblue, which is sold through pharmaceutical outlets in Britain.
The acquisition of Naarden doubles Unilever’s business in fragrances and food flavours. Chesebrough-Pond’s, which owns Pond’s and Vaseline, is acquired in the US.
Dove is relaunched in Europe, starting in Italy.
Calvin Klein and Elizabeth Arden/Fabergé are acquired while Magnum ice cream is launched in Germany.
The new business focus continues with the number of categories in which Unilever competes cut from over 50 to just 13 by the end of the decade.
This includes the decision to sell or withdraw many brands and concentrate on those with the biggest potential.
Restructuring creates four core business areas: Home Care, Personal Care, Foods and Speciality Chemicals. The new structure is led by a new team, ExCo (the Executive Committee) and includes 12 business groups, each responsible for a mix of geographical and product areas.
Also during this decade Unilever sets up a sustainable agriculture programme in light of growing environmental pressures and consumer concerns about the food chain. Other initiatives to preserve water resource and source fish from sustainable stocks soon follow.
Unilever enters the Czech Republic and Hungary, and establishes UniRus in Russia.
Breyers ice cream is acquired in the US and Organics shampoo is first launched in Thailand. By 1995 Organics is sold in over 40 countries.
The disposal of United Africa Company, Unilever’s huge West African trading, brewing and textiles company, is completed.
Unilever publishes its Code of Business Principles.
The unprecedented decision is taken to practically eliminate trans-fats from food production in a rapid response to new research suggesting that their effect on blood cholesterol is at least as adverse as that of saturated fats.
Unilever makes an ambitious commitment to source all fish from sustainable stocks and starts working with the WWF to establish a certification programme for sustainable fisheries known as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Hindustan Lever and Brooke Bond Lipton India merge to create India’s largest private sector company, and the Helene Curtis hair care business in the US is acquired.
The Unilever Nutrition Centre is created.
Annapurna iodised salt is launched in India and starts to make a big impact on redressing iodine deficiency.
Kibon ice cream is acquired in Brazil. Unilever’s chemicals businesses including National Starch and Quest International are sold.
Shareholders authorise a special dividend of €7.4 billion and a share consolidation to reduce the number of shares per issue
As the challenges facing businesses, the environment and communities grow, Unilever transforms organisationally and strategically to ensure we remain a sustainable business.
As people’s shopping and purchasing habits start to shift and consumers become more socially, environmentally and civically motivated, Unilever also adopts change, both in the way our business is structured and the way we think. Our Path to Growth strategy leads to more acquisitions and the rationalisation of manufacturing and production sites to form centres of excellence. The One Unilever programme aligns the organisation behind a single strategy, simplifying our business and leveraging our scale more effectively.
We also build on our long history of social purpose by embedding sustainable thinking even further into our day-to-day activities.
In 2002, the Lifebuoy brand launches its hygiene education programme, Swasthya Chetna, which will make a difference to the lives of 120 million people in rural areas of India, while in 2004 we become a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). In 2008, in an effort to help halt deforestation, we announce our commitment to draw all our palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015.
As the decade draws to a close, the whole world is experiencing unprecedented economic and environmental uncertainty. The changes Unilever has adopted result in the launch of the Compass strategy in 2009, which prepares us to face the next decade with a truly sustainable business model: to double the size of our business while reducing our environmental impact.
Bestfoods joins Unilever in the second-largest cash acquisition in history. Other acquisitions include Slim-Fast Foods, Ben & Jerry’s and the Amora-Maille culinary business in France.
We launch the Unilever Health Institute – a centre of excellence in nutrition, health and vitality.
By 2001 Unilever has reduced our brands from 1,600 to 900. DiverseyLever, Elizabeth Arden and Unipath are sold.
Our brand portfolio is reshaped and enhanced through acquisitions and the sale of 87 businesses, generating €6.3 billion of sale proceeds.
Unilever Health Institute opens regional centres in Bangkok, Thailand and Accra, Ghana.
Our Nutrition Policy and Nutrition and Health Academy are launched.
The Vitality mission is launched and the new Unilever brand rolled out, including the new logo which represents the diversity of Unilever, our products and our people.
Unilever sells Unilever Cosmetics International (UCI) to Coty Inc of the US. The sale is in line with Unilever’s strategy to focus on core categories.
The Nutrition Enhancement Programme is completed, through which 16,000 products are assessed for levels of trans fats, saturated fats, sodium and sugars, and, where necessary, action is taken.
Antony Burgmans steps down as Chairman after being with the company for over 35 years. Michael Treschow succeeds him as the first independent Chairman of the Boards of Unilever.
New technology helps create Small & Mighty, the first super-concentrated liquid laundry detergent that uses one-third the packaging, one-third the water and one-third of the transport of dilute liquids.
Unilever announces agreements to acquire the Buavita vitality drinks brand in Indonesia and Inmarko, the leading ice cream business in Russia.
Unilever commits to source all of our tea from sustainable, ethical sources, asking the Rainforest Alliance to start auditing our tea suppliers with immediate effect.
We announce the sale of several businesses including our North American laundry business, our edible oil business in Côte d’Ivoire, our interests in local oil palm plantations, Palmci and PHCI, and the Bertolli olive oil and vinegar business to Grupo SOS.
We commit to move to sustainable palm oil sourcing by 2015, purchasing our first batch of certified sustainable palm oil in November.
For the tenth year running, Unilever is named foods sector leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices – the only company ever to achieve that accolade.
Paul Polman takes over as Chief Executive Officer on 1 January, succeeding Patrick Cescau, who retires after 35 years of service to the company.
Unilever purchases 185,000 tonnes of sustainable palm oil via GreenPalm certificates, accounting for around 15% of its total needs.
Around 80% of Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea bags sold in Western Europe are sourced from certified farms. Rainforest Alliance Certified tea also becomes available in the US, Japan and Australia.
Nearly 17 million school meals are delivered to 80,000 children through our partnership with the World Food Programme.
Towards the end of the year, Unilever launches our renewed vision: to double the size of our business while reducing our overall impact on the environment
Recognising that we are at a turning point in history, we develop our strategy of decoupling growth from our environmental impact, while increasing Unilever’s positive social impact.
In the face of climate change, instability and threats to the progress made in raising living standards during the 20th century, Unilever launches the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, our blueprint for a sustainable business model.
The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan sets out hundreds of targets and commitments which fall under three key goals:
After its 2010 launch, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is recognised by independent commentators as one of the most ambitious sustainability plans ever created by an international corporation – and it continues to evolve, driving growth in our business while harnessing our reach and expertise to create change in the world.
By 2014, our ‘sustainable living brands’ – brands which have a sustainable purpose and contribute to one or more of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan goals – are growing at twice the rate of the rest of the business and making a major contribution to overall growth.
The role that business can play in creating a safer, fairer future remains at the top of the global agenda, highlighted by events such as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference and the launch of the UN’s global goals.
Unilever identifies three areas where we can help deliver real systems change by working in partnership with others in business, civil society, government and NGOs: climate change and deforestation; water, sanitation and hygiene; and sustainable agriculture and food security.
Unilever is named sustainability leader in the Food & Beverage ‘super sector’ of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, for the 12th consecutive year.
Alberto Culver shareholders vote in favour of our acquisition of the company, bringing brands including TRESemmé, Alberto VO5, Nexxus, St Ives and Simple into the Unilever portfolio.
Our CEO at the time, Paul Polman, pledges Unilever’s backing for an industry-wide move towards supporting sustainable agriculture at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Unilever’s turnover exceeds €50 billion, with all regions and categories contributing to growth. We now have 14 brands each with sales of more than €1 billion a year.
We continue to make good progress towards meeting the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan targets. More than a third of agricultural raw materials are sourced sustainably and more than 50% of factories achieve the goal of sending no waste to landfill. We reach 224 million people through programmes to reduce diarrhoeal disease by handwashing with soap, provide safe drinking water, promote oral health and improve young people’s self-esteem.
Unilever is named as a winner of the prestigious 2013 Catalyst Award for our initiatives that expand opportunities for women and business. The company re-enters the Myanmar market with the launch of full business operations including a new manufacturing facility and new headquarters in Yangon.
Unilever scoops 44 awards at the 60th Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
We launch the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneur Awards, an international awards programme designed to inspire young people around the world to tackle environmental, social and health issues.
Despite a difficult economic environment, Unilever achieves a fifth successive year of top- and bottom-line growth. We continue to reshape our portfolio, making a number of strategic acquisitions over the year including the Talenti super-premium ice cream business in North America and the Qinyuan water purification business in China.
Unilever is named leader of the Food, Beverage and Tobacco industry group in the 2014 Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI) review.
Unilever continues to show consistent profitable growth in volatile markets while strengthening the sustainability of our portfolio.
For the 15th time in 16 years, Unilever was named leader of the Food, Beverage & Tobacco Industry Group with a score of 92 out of 100. We were also selected as an index component of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI) following our participation in the 2015 RobecoSAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment.
In January, we announce that we have achieved our target of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from our entire network of factories, while in June we achieve a saving of 1 million tonnes of CO2 emissions since 2008.
‘Sustainable living brands’ now represent half of our growth and are growing twice as fast as our other brands. A growing number of our leading brands have integrated sustainability into the contribution they make to the world – their purpose – and into their products’ ingredients and life-cycle.
We contribute to the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and join global calls for action at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21). We announce that Unilever will be ‘carbon positive’ by 2030.
In ‘Mobilising Collective Action: USLP Summary of Progress 2015’, we report that we are on track to achieve the majority of our USLP targets and make an unprecedented call for collective action to address the biggest challenges facing the world.