Top woman Unilever: ‘A lot more vegetables should now be added to a Knorr World dish’

October 3, 2021 by No Comments

Thank god her children do their homework themselves, says Hanneke Faber. This means that the boss of Unilever’s global food division – that has been Faber (50) for a year – can work from home undisturbed, while it is still quite busy. Her son, who is studying in the United States, is temporarily back. Her daughters, a fourth and sixth grader, are even sitting next to Faber in the study where she has opened her laptop. Her youngest is doing French. The other, says Faber with a laugh, seems to be asleep. “He doesn’t have to take a final exam anymore.”

Under normal circumstances, you look forward to opening an interview with a top woman of a large company with a round of home situation. Quite a cliché – the men are never questioned about that. But these are not normal circumstances, so the conversation naturally starts with children, followed by the possibilities of video service Microsoft Teams and the yoga class that the European marketing director of Hellman’s and Calvé now gives daily via webcam.

A large part of the 161,000 Unilever employees are not in corona quarantine. They are, for example, working in the factories that make Dove shower gel, Omo detergent, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or Calvé peanut butter.

Tens of thousands of office workers do work from home. That is going “wonderfully well”, says Faber. “Sometimes I think: wow, they get even more done than usual.”

How does your Unilever branch, food and beverages, feel about the corona crisis?

“We are seeing huge shifts. For example, we are the largest ice cream seller in the world. More than half of all ice cream is sold outside the supermarket. You don’t eat that ice cream that you eat on the street. On the other hand, we are of course seeing an increase in sales in supermarkets.”

I understood that Unilever has converted factory lines just to supply soap.

“Absolute. A factory in Hamburg that used to make shower gel now also makes hand soap. And in Leeds, a deodorant factory has been half converted to make hand sanitizer.

“You do things that you thought: you just can’t do that. We must also learn from this: we must become even more flexible, even more digital. But we now live very much with the issues of the day, we must not lose sight of the future. In 2050 there will be nine billion people on this planet. We should all be able to feed them healthy food that is sustainably produced.”

That’s how Faber sounds at its ‘Unileverest’: for years the company has been making progress with the message that profitability and a better world must go hand in hand. Faber conveys this effortlessly, even though she is still a relative newcomer to Unilever. For example, Faber, responsible for the largest ice cream division in the world, starts talking about the ‘huge impact of cows, of dairy’ on the climate. “Almost 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions! Look, not everyone has to become vegan, but we do have to help people eat more plant-based.” And that’s where the vegan Magnums and Ben & Jerry’s flavors come in. There is also a demand for that, of course, because Unilever is “not a charitable organization”, says Faber.

Perhaps it helps in promoting Unilever’s form of world improvement that she is the daughter of Mient Jan Faber, the anti-nuclear activist who mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in the 1980s. She herself says that her father, who comes from a family of pastors and municipal secretaries, did not initially understand her choice for business. “But we actually have a lot in common. We want to do it right, we work hard, we believe in a mission.”

In 2018, then CEO Paul Polman stole Hanneke Faber from Ahold Delhaize, where she was head of e-commerce. She then climbed up within Unilever at lightning speed. After barely a year as top boss in Europe, she has been leading the global food and beverage division since May 2019, accounting for 19.3 of Unilever’s 52 billion euros annual turnover in 2019. That’s what we would actually talk about: this interview was already planned before the coronavirus put the Netherlands in an ‘intelligent lockdown’.

The food branch is perhaps Unilever’s most turbulent department. Consumer tastes are constantly changing, large companies such as Unilever have to do everything they can to keep up with this: by inventing new things themselves, or by buying trendy companies. Faber tries to “get the speed in” at Unilever. “It is no longer of this time to think of something that is on the shelf four years later.”

It went well at the Vegetarian Butcher, she says. “We bought that in December 2018. If you look at other acquisitions, before we understood anything about it, you were two years later. But with a ‘hamburger’ from the Vegetarian Butcher, we were already at the Burger King in 27 countries in November 2019.”

People want this: healthier, more plant-based, less waste

Hanneke Faber

Another example of changing consumer tastes: in January CEO Alan Jope announced that he would review the tea division (valued at around 3 billion euros). Young people in the US and Europe increasingly prefer to drink green and herbal teas, Jope said at the time, while Unilever sells largely ‘old-fashioned’ black tea with brands such as Lipton. The tea thus hinders Unilever’s growth ambitions. In 2017, the margarines from Blue Band, Becel and Flora were also sold for this reason.

All options are on the table for the tea division, including sales. How is that going at this time?

“We initially thought we would make a decision in the middle of the year. We’ll see if this is still feasible. For such a strategic review, you also want to go into the factory, for example. That is not possible now.”

You are the largest tea seller in the world. Why not put your weight behind green and herbal teas?

“We have really invested in that in recent years. We bought Pukka, Pure Leaf, T2 in Australia. So it’s not like we missed that trend altogether. We are also looking closely at that. We may make different decisions for different parts.”

You mean that the outcome could be: the herbal tea suits us, the black doesn’t?

“If you say so. No decisions have been made, all options are open.”

“You are known as a ‘brand activist’. Every Unilever brand must have a purpose have a mission. Your boss Alan Jope carries that out too. Which brand is that looking for?

“If it’s really hard to search, a brand may not have it in them. But most brands started out with a mission. I think Knorr is a good example, it was started in 1838 by Carl Heinrich Knorr who saw that his factory workers ate too little vegetables. Then he went to dry vegetables for them. We have thoroughly dusted that off: now it is Knorr’s mission to get people to eat more fruit and vegetables. The World dishes, of which we already sell 50 million units in the Netherlands, have been relaunched. Where you first had to add 60 grams of vegetables, it is now 200 grams. And you add a little less, or no meat at all.”

Aren’t you afraid that this will be considered patronizing? Unilever makes us eat less meat…

“No, the good thing is: these are all opportunities for us. It is not a minister’s finger, people want this: healthier, more plant-based, less waste. Brands that take this into account are also better in the market. And brands with a purpose also sell better, we know from our own research.”

Is ludicrousness lurking when all brands are forced to do such a mission?

“New. Look, it doesn’t have to be all that heavy. Magnum’s motto is: true to pleasure. They sponsor Pride and other LGBT events, where people dare to show what they enjoy.”

That is seen by some people as ‘pink washing’, as if you are making a commercial profit out of it.

Laughing: “That’s right, but Magnum has been doing this for years, so I hope that’s not the case with us.”