Unilever ready for action

by Monica Watrous    View Me on Google+
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LONDON – With Slim-Fast, Ragu and Bertolli now out of the picture, Unilever P.L.C. said its U.S. portfolio is finally in fighting shape.

“The portfolio reshaping has also had a profound effect on our U.S. business, where much of the disposal activity has actually taken place,” said Paul Polman, chief executive officer, during a July 24 call with financial analysts to discuss second-quarter earnings. “It means that now, for the first time may I say, the U.S. is well aligned to Unilever's global strategy in terms of both brand and portfolio.”

During the second quarter, Unilever sold a majority stake in its Slim-Fast business to Kainos Capital, a Dallas-based private equity firm, and its Ragu and Bertolli sauce businesses for approximately $2.15 billion to the Mizkan Group, a Tokyo-based maker of vinegars, sauces, cooking wines and seasonings.

These divestures followed last year’s sales of Unilever’s Wish-Bone dressings business to Pinnacle Foods for $580 million and Skippy peanut butter to Hormel Foods for approximately $700 million.

“We were planning to do about €500 million divestiture in the last year,” Mr. Polman said. “We've actually done €1 billion. So we're running a little bit ahead of what we were thinking. The opportunities were right. The price obviously was superb. We're at the point right now that I think that our portfolio plus or minus is where it is to keep growing our business.”

But the reshaping of Unilever’s U.S. portfolio began in 2011, when the company sold its Culver Specialty Brands business unit, which includes the Mrs. Dash, Molly McButter, Sugar Twin, Baker’s Joy, Static Guard and Kleen Guard brands, for approximately $325 million in cash to B&G Foods.

“The Alberto Culver acquisition obviously was a big help, but it allowed us to do a major restructuring, without losing critical mass of our food business, to bring it more in line with our company's efforts,” Mr. Polman said. “That has been the biggest transition I think North America has seen in its history. We have had, obviously, in this quarter, the last part of it with our divestures of Slim-Fast and the Ragu, Bertolli business.”

Now the company is positioned to strengthen its remaining U.S. food brands in the categories of spreads, ice cream and tea products with innovation.

“A good example would be the (K-Cups) launch on Lipton, an under-supported brand for way too long,” Mr. Polman said. “We are now re-launching that. The brand is growing again. We are now, in a relatively short time, market leaders in Cups, and it's one of the fastest selling S.K.U.s now for the retailer. It's a good example of the speed with which we bring in the premium ice cream. We have now taken firm market leadership on ice cream in the U.S., and, more importantly, it's come behind premium variants whilst we delist the unprofitable variants, and the same you see in other parts of the business. So I'm hopeful, and the numbers need to support that, that the U.S. will actually continue to show more positive numbers moving forward.”

Led by expanded Magnum ice cream bars, Ben & Jerry’s new Core line and new Breyers gelato, recent launches have supported strong growth for the company’s ice cream business in the United States.

Meanwhile, the company also has invested in its spreads business with a $152.5 million expansion of a Kansas facility and a $99 million expansion of a Missouri plant, both announced in the past year. Mr. Polman said the company is making progress in the category with its Hellmann’s, Country Crock, Promise and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter brands.

“There are, undoubtedly, signs that we're on the right track,” Mr. Polman said of the company’s spreads business. “Our volume trend is improving, and we are now gaining share from other margarines. The next step is to stem the market decline and stabilize our sales.”

For the second quarter, Unilever reported underlying sales growth of 3.8%, with North America up 0.4% on positive volumes partially offset by price.
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