Developing a taste for activist investors

The Times 6 June 2017

It was called a $143 billion flop, but Kraft Heinz’s failed attempt to buy Unilever was a classic tale of the pressures that modern companies face. Unilever under Paul Polman has become the model of a “good” company: only two years into the job as chief executive, he launched a sustainable living plan, an attempt to halve Unilever’s environmental impact. His efforts have been applauded by NGOs and activist groups, but the question was always whether investors would give him the time to prove that responsible capitalism made good business sense.

Unilever tried to head off any criticism by moving away from quarterly reporting. John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: “That is challenging [when] you get activist shareholders or, in Heinz’s case, a smaller company saying, ‘This is a company ripe for selling off assets, stripping out the fat, increasing the dividend.’ Because the whole point about creating a more sustainable economy is that you think long term and you think about the bigger picture.”

Kraft Heinz abandoned its offer only nine days after proposing it. Much of the work achieved by Mr Polman…

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