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Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 10:39 GMT
Unilever: A company history

Unilever sells its products globally

From ice cream to washing powder, Anglo-Dutch group Unilever is one of the world's biggest makers of household goods.

The consumer goods giant grew out of a merger in 1930 between Dutch margarine company Margarine Unie and British soapmaker Lever Brothers.

Seventy years later, it has lost out to US rivals Proctor & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive. Its response to the increased competition is to axe jobs and cull some of its brands.

The Sunlight company

Lever Brothers was founded in 1885 by William Hesketh Lever with his brother James.

The company produced Sunlight, the world's first packaged, branded laundry soap.

Persil is one of the company's best-known brands
Mr Lever established a reputation as a social reformer, championing a shorter work day, savings plans, libraries and health benefits. He built Port Sunlight, a tree-lined employee village outside Liverpool.

His empire originally consisted of soap factories. But in 1917, he decided to diversify into foods. He bought fish, ice cream and canned foods businesses.

In 1930, he chose Margarine Unie as a merger partner. The Dutch company had grown through mergers with other margarine companies in the 1920s.

The logic for the Anglo-Dutch merger was clear: animal fats were the raw materials for both margarines and soaps.

The new company dabbled in many different areas. During the Second World War it helped make tank periscopes and soldiers' rations.

In the 1950s, it moved into chemicals, packaging, market research and advertising.

By 1980, soap and edible fats contributed to just 40% of profits, compared with an original 90%.

Persil Power

In recent years, the company has faced increasing pressure from US rivals Proctor & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive.

The launch of Persil Power was scuppered by the finding that far from cleaning clothes, it destroyed them.

Niall FitzGerald, who introduced Persil Power, now heads the company.

He got the job as UK chairman in September 1996, when Unilever streamlined its management.

Since the mid-1980s, the company has got rid of its packaging companies, most of its agribusiness and its speciality chemicals business. This left it with home and personal care, and foods.

The company then embarked on a spending spree in these three areas. It bought Brooke Bond tea in 1984 and later the Faberge/Elizabeth Arden brands.

Back in the UK, its ice cream brands - which include Magnum - have been hit by a competition investigations.

Earlier this year, the government called on the three ice cream companies to end the trading agreements with retailers which abuse their monopoly power.

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See also:
22 Feb 00 |  Business
Unilever axes 25,000 jobs
28 Jan 00 |  Business
Ice cream monopolies banned
22 Feb 00 |  Business
Retailers focus on key brands
06 Sep 99 |  The Company File
Unilever culls its brands
21 Sep 99 |  The Company File
Unilever to create 'power brands'
08 Oct 99 |  The Company File
Unilever pension fund sues managers

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