"America's Most Admired" sounds more like reality TV than a serious look at who's who in U.S. business. But it caught my attention when Fortune recently named Unilever USA - the subject of this month's cover story - as one of the nation's most respected consumer food product companies. Each year, Philadelphia's Hay Group asks corporate directors, executives and industry analysts to evaluate Fortune 1,000 CPG companies on the basis on eight criteria: innovation, people management, use of corporate assets, social responsibility, quality of management, financial soundness, long-term investment and product and/or service quality.
Survey respondents listed Unilever - parent to such brands as Bertolli, Breyers, Country Crock, Good Humor, Hellmann's, Lipton, Promise and more - among the best of a dozen leading CPG food processors. Specifically, this $10 billion-plus giant (also involved with hygiene and personal care products) placed fifth, just behind Nestlé USA, General Mills, PepsiCo and Kellogg Co. What's Unilever's story? Managing Editor Carolyn Chapin relates part of it by taking you right into the company's Englewood Cliffs, N.J., headquarters. Meanwhile, I can tell you that Unilever . . .
. . . is distinguished for environmental leadership. The Carbon Disclosure Project, a coalition of more than 315 global investors, last year recognized Unilever as "Best in Class" for its approach to climate change disclosure. The company also was named as a leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Indexes in the food and beverage sector. Stateside, U.S. President Kevin Havelock recently outlined his company's efforts at the Grocery Manufacturers Association's first Environmental Sustainability Summit.
... is recognized for corporate ethics. Columbia Business School's Social Enterprise Club awarded its 2007 Botwinick Prize in Ethics to Unilever Group Chief Executive Patrick Cescau. Columbia says the honor recognizes an individual who "exemplifies the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct."
... is trimming its portfolio and reorganizing Unilever last year pleased Wall Street by committing to slash costs (cut workforce) and reconfigure its portfolio (sell non-core businesses) between now and 2010.
Truth be told, Unilever is a company transitioning here in the United States. To streamline the organization, it has consolidated several regional offices (including its former Green Bay, Wis., ice cream headquarters) into Englewood Cliffs. It also has announced a series of structural changes and personnel appointments, most recently involving Amanda Sourry, named this past January to senior vice president and general manager for a newly formed U.S. Foods Business Team (including all food except ice cream).
OK, so perhaps it's time to add me to the list of Unilever's admirers. Growing pains aside, I think the company's latest food business decisions bode quite well for its strategic planning and market responsiveness - involving both customers and consumers.