Unilever's Fitzgerald Didn't Jump, Was Pushed

25 March 2005

Niall FitzGerald, the former co-chairman of Unilever, whose departure from office last year was diplomatically orchestrated as a planned retirement [WAMN: 114-May-04], was in fact "asked" by his fellow board members to quit the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods titan.

The source for this eyebrow-straining revelation is not the usual executive washroom gossip - but the coldly factual Unilever annual report, released Thursday. The pain of FitzGerald's unceremonious ejection was eased by a £1.2 million ($2.25m; €1.73m) payoff, the report also revealed.

FitzGerald's exit was almost certainly prompted by the failure of the group's 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.

Unilever told The Times yesterday that FitzGerald had not initiated his departure. "The company asked him to step aside. He could have worked until 62 but he was asked to leave early by the board," said a company spokesman.

But it is not only the brave upon whom fortune smiles - on occasion it favours the failed as well.

FitzGerald, who was also honorary chairman of the UK's main advertising body, the Advertising Association, set up a nice little earner with Reuters before departing Unilever, joining the media group as chairman at an annual salary of £500k - twice the amount paid to his predecessor.

In the face of fierce criticism from shareholders, Reuters defended its largesse as "necessary to recruit a figure of Mr FitzGerald's calibre".

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