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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 10:14 GMT
Best of British business: Lever

BBC News Online is inviting readers to vote for the greatest British business figure. This is the case for William Lever.
The name Unilever is so established in the business gallery of stars, that it might be easy to forget the man who made it all happen: the soap king himself, William Hesketh Lever.

William Lever
Born into a modest grocer's family in 1851 - he was to be one of the great pioneers of modern consumerism.

His product was soap. Before Lever, it was a commodity - you got the shopkeeper to cut you a slab; it was a cottage industry.

Lever was the one who pre-wrapped it in bars and imprinted the brand onto it.

He mass-produced it. And "Sunlight" soap cleaned up.

Model village

Soap rivals, for example from the innovative Pears family, eventually got taken over by the unbeatable Lever Brothers.

By 1910, the Lever empire was a multinational concern. It was soon to establish a palm oil plantation in Africa, and it diversified into food products.

As if all that wasn't enough, Lever was one of the great Victorian philanthropists: he built a model village for his workers, Port Sunlight on the Wirral.

It's worth visiting today. He endowed a huge foundation, the Leverhulme Trust - it still finances academic research. In one of my previous jobs, I benefited from it.

Innovator

Of course, there are criticisms of the man - his patronising treatment of his African workers for example.

But don't judge him by today's standards. He understood the need for innovation, for diversification, for adding value through marketing.

We take them for granted now.

So I'm supporting Mr Lever, because, to paraphrase a slogan from a soap advert, he's worth it.


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