Niall FitzGerald has put in the type of performance of which a heavyweight boxer would have been proud. His announcement last week that he was retiring from the chairmanship of Unilever means that, like Lennox Lewis, he has done what few before him have achieved - retired at the top of his profession.
For the past four years Unilever has pursued FitzGerald's 'Path to Growth' strategy - a five-year business plan to accelerate top-line growth and improve margins. In a fascinating case study for the rest of the marketing world, the idea has been to focus on fewer, stronger brands to promote faster growth.
This involved a rationalisation programme which saw Unilever's brand portfolio slashed from more than 1600 in 1999 to just 400 by the end of 2004, with advertising and promotional spend increased markedly on these brands.
Last week, FitzGerald reported on the final set of year-end figures before his departure and the end of the Path to Growth. They might not have been the most glowing in Unilever's history, but with less than a year to go, he stated with conviction that "Path to Growth has already transformed the company into a much more resilient and responsive business".
Certainly the top-line statistics point to a successful strategy. The portfolio had already been slashed to 540 and FitzGerald is confident that the magic figure of 400 will be reached by the end of this year.
The leading brands have moved from 75% of Unilever's sales in 1999 to 93% in 2003, close to its target of 95%. Unilever has invested £18.1bn in advertising and promotion over the past four years, with operating margins close to targets set in the strategy.
FitzGerald said that all targets have been met, "with the exception of leading brands growth in 2003".
But it is the growth of these leading brands that will be the lifeblood of the slimmed-down Unilever.
The company now has 12 brands with sales of more than 1bn euros (£680m).
It had just four with this level of sales in 1999 and only one ten years ago. So it is crucial that these brands perform.
The latest round of results illustrates the problem. Overall, leading brands growth stands at 2.5%, with the Home and Personal Care category ahead at 4.2% and foods at a lacklustre 1.2%. This is well below the intended level of 5% to 6% growth set out last year.
Turnover for the year was down 2% on 2003 levels, though pre-tax profits were up 21%, proving that margins are improving. Despite this, areas of the group's business require fixing.
The performance of Slimfast knocked 0.6% off the total growth figure this year. But Unilever insists that the strength of the brand has enabled it to overcome challenges from the likes of the Atkins diet, leaving it confident the business will return to growth.
The recent speculation that Dr Atkins died weighing 18 stone, and with apparent heart trouble, could fuel a return to the Slimfast product portfolio for millions of dieters.
The fragrance business has also struggled, knocking 0.4% off leading brands growth. But it, too, is midway through a turnaround strategy.
According to Lever Faberge chairman Keith Weed, Path to Growth has been a tremendous success. "Three years ago, we had 35 brands in the Lever Faberge stable. That will be down to 13 by the end of this year, and the business is growing strongly year on year," he says. "The most difficult trick is to leverage global scale but to remain local."
Unilever Bestfoods UK chairman Gavin Neath adds: "We used to have 45 brands and now have just 15. Only seven of these are advertised, but we used to promote 22. Brands such as Hellman's, Pot Noodle and Flora are performing well. We are tidying up the margins, but have finished the Path to Growth process for Bestfoods."
From an objective standpoint, David Hallam, FMCG analyst at Williams De Broe, says: "Unilever has hit most of its targets . It did miss top-line growth, but excluding Slimfast and Prestige Fragrance, it's almost there. It will continue to put resources behind key brands."
Some brands, such as Dove, have seen dramatic success (see panel), while others, such as Lipton Tea and Magnum, have enjoyed solid international success.
In the UK, Lynx has enjoyed a buoyant year. The deodorant brand initiated a marketing campaign that has been both eye-catching and foot-tapping.
A TV campaign for its Pulse variant caught the public's imagination and led to the release of a single - Make Luv - that went to number one in the UK charts.
So what next? How will the final Path to Growth year pan out and what will follow the strategy and outgoing chairman? The priority for the remainder of 2004 is to complete the five-year plan and deal with the underperforming businesses that held back growth in 2003, although a sales target range of 3% to 5% is down from the original target of 6%.
Unilever has already given considerable thought to the strategic framework to follow Path to Growth. According to FitzGerald, the approach has "been developed and is now being discussed in the business to plan implementation".
The basic premise for the next five years can be summed up in the word "vitality", according to FitzGerald. He said: "Unilever needs to meet everyday needs for hygiene, nutrition and personal care with brands that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life."
The focus will be on themes such as personal health, convenience and indulgence, which Unilever has identified as being crucial to how it will make its brands salient to tomorrow's consumers.
Unilever seems content to increase growth from within its existing portfolio, at the same time moving its brands beyond the functional.
FitzGerald declared a need to "create an emotional bond with consumers", but said it was with its current brands that it could satisfy consumer needs.
He admitted Unilever needed to be more flexible, saying it will not be driven into panic decisions. "If the best plan is to fix it, we will.
If we can get better shareholder value by selling, we will." Describing it in football terms, he continued: "Sometimes we need to attack aggressively, sometimes to secure our position in midfield, and sometimes we have to defend like our life depends on it."
FitzGerald also welcomed a new confidence in the power of the Unilever reputation, believing the name can lend 'real strength' across all aspects of the business. He announced that all local companies would carry the Unilever name by 2005 and that the name will appear on all packs.
By that time Patrick Cescau will have his feet very firmly under the Unilever top desk. It is not a detail FitzGerald has overlooked. "In the interests of orderly succession," he said, "Patrick should be in place in good time to carry our strategy to the next stage."
THE OUTGOING BOSS
Name: Niall FitzGerald, chairman, Unilever
Career: FitzGerald has been joint chairman and chief executive of Unilever since September 1996. His 37 years with Unilever have been spent in a variety of jobs and several countries. His early career was on the commercial and financial side of the business. In the early-80s he became chief executive of Unilever's foods business in South Africa. He joined the board in 1987, serving as financial director, foods director and detergents director, until his appointment as vice-chairman and later chairman.
Future: FitzGerald is one of British business' most outspoken supporters of the euro, and was among a small group of industry leaders to recently confront the Prime Minister over issues ranging from regulation to taxes.
He is a strong advocate of 'payment by results' for executives. His own pay last year totalled £2m, half of which was a performance bonus. His pension from Unilever is worth an estimated £12m.
FitzGerald is a Manchester United fan, and a lover of opera and jazz.
He has not revealed his plans for the future, and appears to have none as yet. He will, he says, "work until midnight on September 30 in the service and interests of the company".
THE INCOMING BOSS
Name: Patrick Cescau, division director, foods
Career: Cescau joined Unilever in 1973. In 1986, he left Europe to become financial director of Unilever Indonesia. After a two-year posting to Unilever Portugal, he returned to Indonesia in 1991 to become chairman.
Four years later, he took over as president and chief executive of Van den Bergh Foods in Chicago. In 1997 he become president of Lipton, following the firm's merger with Van den Bergh.
The following year he was promoted to controller and deputy financial director, and in May 1999, was appointed to the role of financial director of Unilever, a position he held until 2000, when he became financial director and also headed the Bestfoods integration team. He then took up his current position.
THE STORY OF DOVE
- The Dove range started life as a moisturising bar ten years ago and is now sold in 80 countries.
- Dove has evolved into a brand worth more than 1bn euros (£680m).
- Path to Growth has been instrumental in allowing the brand to evolve.
- More than 7.2 million UK women use Dove at least once a week. Last year, Dove launched 14 products.
- Lever Faberge is supporting its Dove brand with a £35m marketing spend in the UK, as it launches products to boost its share in growing areas of the personal care market.
- As part of the activity, it is launching an Intensive Firming Gel-Cream and a Firming Bodywash. In addition, Dove Firming Lotion is to be relaunched.