Unilever Shareholders Revolt Against Fitzgerald Payout

03 May 2005

Corporate governance adviser RREV (Research, Recommendations and Electronic Voting) has declared itself less than happy at a "lack of transparency" surrounding the £1.22 million ($2.33m; €1.81m) termination payment handed to former Unilever co-chairman Niall FitzGerald, who 'retired' at the age of 62 to take the chair of Reuters.

'Retirement' is not a wholly accurate way of describing Fitzgerald's departure, his exit having been 'requested' by his fellow Unilever board members [WAMN: 25-Mar-05]. This came to light only with the publication of the group's annual report, released in March.

London-based RREV has advised its members to abstain from voting on the adoption of the Unilever remuneration report, due to be put to investors at the annual meetings on May 10 in Rotterdam and the day after in London. Whatever the outcome of the vote, few believe that Fitzgerald will be asked to hand back his pennies from heaven.

Two months after news of the handout emerged and shareholder unrest refused to die down, a Unilever spokesman finally felt it necessary to explain.

"Under terms of his contract, which was a matter of public record, [Fitzgerald] was entitled to one year's notice. His compensation was based on this sum plus the benefits he would have reasonably expected to receive during that notice period. Niall made an enormous contribution to the business during his 37-year career and his record speaks for itself."

As indeed it does, say critics, who point to the five years precdeding his early 'retirement'.

During this period FitzGerald presided over the controversial Path to Growth five-year plan, of which he was seen as the principal architect. This set aggressive sales growth targets, at the same time decimating Unilever's 1,600-strong brand portfolio to just four hundred lines.

Since when revenue growth has stagnated and profits fallen. In the final quarter of 2004 the group made a loss of €519 million ($664.16m; £357.42m).

RREV is a joint venture representing the interests both of the UK's National Association of Pension Funds and Institutional Shareholder Services, a US-based provider of global research and proxy voting services.

Data sourced from The Times Online (UK); additional content by WARC staff