Paul is the second of six children, born and raised in Enschede, Netherlands – a town near the German-Dutch border. His parents had lived through the ravages of the Second World War and a by-product of that experience was the sense of stoicism that they instilled in Paul, as well as his siblings.
Paul had wanted to become a doctor, but admission to medical school was determined by a lottery system and Paul was not selected. Instead, he earned a BBA from the University of Groningen. His father then urged his son to move to the U.S., arranging for Paul to work at the same tire company at which he was employed as a factory worker. Paul wasn’t enamored with the idea – regardless, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.
While working, he attended the University of Cincinnati where he earned an MA in Economics as well as an MBA in Finance and International Marketing. At university, Paul met and married Kim, with whom he would have two children. In 1979, Paul was hired by Proctor & Gamble – headquartered in Cincinnati. Twenty-seven years after he began as a cost analyst, Paul advanced to the position of President of P&G’s European operations.
Most people would stick with a company like P&G to the very end of their career. Not Paul. In 2006 Paul accepted the position of Chief Financial Officer for the Nestle Corporation. It took just three years for Paul to make his next career move. On January 1, 2009, Paul assumed the position of CEO of Unilever, a corporation with more than 400 products and a presence in over 190 countries.
With the global economy still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, Paul wasted no time initiating a dramatic shift in corporate philosophy. His very first move was to discontinue quarterly reports. His logic was simple, quarterly reports force short-term thinking with a focus on exclusively on earnings, forgoing long-term strategies.
He then announced that Unilever’s business strategy would shift its focus to reducing its environmental foot print and increase its positive social impact. Paul introduced the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – his strategy to accomplish his vision. Many saw his plans as radical and unsustainable. He had a unique perspective regarding his decision to ‘hit the ground running’…”The first day that they hire you they usually don’t fire you – so you might as well take the courageous decision then.”
His approach certainly differs from classic corporate strategy, but it seeks to accomplish similar ends. Addressing environmental and societal issues will lead to greater economic strength and reduce poverty for many. That, in turn, will increase demand for Unilever products – growing sales and profits. In his words – “Brands with a stronger purpose grow faster and are more profitable.”
Unilever is seeking to grow its business and increase profits through a strategy of sustainability. Doing so has generated a good deal of criticism among some suppliers and a percentage of shareholders. Sensing vulnerability, competitors have pursued a takeover. Kraft Heinz, in particular, attempted a buyout. That move was thwarted and Unilever, under progressive leadership, continues to pursue its sustainability plan. With its share price is lagging, profits barely increasing, critics howling and some shareholders questioning its strategy – Unilever continues to be the world leader as a socially responsible corporation. The strategy which could become the new corporate paradigm or turn out to merely be a grand failed experiment is the direct result of the efforts of a fearless brand – Paul Polman
Fearless brands are innovators – bold and determined
Paul Polman received powerful advice from his father – “Never forget where you came from!” That perspective has stayed with Polman since he first left the Netherlands for the U.S. in the mid 1970’s. His life experience has been greatly influenced, albeit indirectly, by the devastation of WWII. His beliefs have also been shaped by his experience working at three of the top consumer goods corporations in the world.
Paul Polman’s beliefs – and actions – focus on doing the responsible thing. How will sustainability help ‘save the world’? It will create a more robust business environment – resulting in greater overall product demand and adding financial freedom by reducing poverty. If you’re looking to increase the value of your brand, there is much to be learned from Paul Polman and Unilever.
Execution is strategy- Strategy is nothing without execution. The greatest business plans and brand building strategies are all for naught without execution. In Polman’s words “I’ve always said execution is strategy in our business. This is consumer goods. I cannot speak for other industries, but for us, execution is strategy…the strategies that we have as companies might differ a little bit, but that’s 5 percent or 10 percent of the work. And then the other 90 percent is execution.”
Embrace competition – Competition leads to innovation, higher quality and more effective execution. Avoiding – or trying to eliminate competition – can lead to complacency and stagnation. Competition is a powerful tool which should be welcomed.
Challenge paradigms – Paul Polman and Unilever are shattering paradigms on an ongoing basis. Doing so is creating the opportunity for powerful results – changing business strategy and improving conditions throughout the world. The adage “It’s always been done this way” needs to be replaced with “What if we tried it this way?” Under Paul Polman’s leadership, Unilever is doing business in a different way – a better way.
Paul Polman has brought a new approach to business. As a fearless brand, he is leading a shift in business which has the potential to ‘save the world’. Some laugh. Some just shake their heads. The results will be known soon enough. In the meantime, as you build your business, your brand, follow Paul Polman’s lead. Be bold. Be decisive. Be fearless.