THE HAGUE, Netherlands—Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods multinational whose vast stable of brands includes Dove, Knorr and Ben & Jerry’s, is to base its headquarters in the Netherlands, ending its longstanding structure of having head offices in both Rotterdam and London.
In a statement March 15, the company said the move is part of a raft of structural changes that will turn it into “a simpler, more agile and more focused business.”
The decision had been widely anticipated, not least because of Britain’s impending departure from the European Union. Unilever made no mention of Brexit.
Many analysts also think that the decision is an attempt by Unilever to insulate itself from a potential hostile takeover—Dutch laws are tougher than those that exist in the U.K. In fact, Unilever launched a far-reaching review of its business after rival Kraft Heinz made an ultimately unsuccessful $143 billion hostile takeover bid early last year.
In spite of the proposed change, Unilever said staff levels in both countries would be unaffected. The company employs 7,300 people in Britain and 3,100 people in the Netherlands. Worldwide, Unilever employs nearly 170,000 people. The company had sales in 2017 of more than 50 billion euros ($62 billion).
Dutch Economic Affairs Minister Eric Wiebes welcomed the announcement, saying it underscored that the Netherlands is an attractive location for big business.
“Unilever is a fantastic company to have here,” Wiebes told NOS Radio. “It’s a sustainable company that focuses on long-term job creation.”
The British government also had a positive take, saying that Unilever was basing its two fastest-growing divisions in Britain and stressing that Brexit was not a factor—in a tweet, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said Unilever’s decision to base its head office in Rotterdam is “part of a long-term restructuring plan of the company and is not connected to the U.K.’s departure from the EU.”
Unilever was formed in 1930 by a business merger of the Dutch Margarine Unie and Britain’s Lever Brothers. That led to the company’s dual identity—with Unilever PLC in Britain and Unilever NV in the Netherlands technically separate companies but operating together thanks to a raft of agreements that allow them to share everything from brands and technology to identical boards of directors.
Unilever said it will now create three divisions—Beauty and Personal Care, Home Care and Foods and Refreshment, with the first two divisions based in London The company said that decision “secures nearly 1 billion pounds (1.1 billion euros) per year of continued spend in the UK.”
The chairman of Unilever’s board, Marijn Dekkers, said the board “believes the move to three divisions and the simplification of our corporate structure will create a simpler, more agile and more focused company with increased strategic flexibility for value-creating portfolio change.”
Dekkers added that the changes “further strengthen Unilever’s corporate governance, creating for the first time in our history a ‘one share, one vote’ principle for all our shareholders.”