“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” Thus the late Andy Grove, who built Intel into the world’s dominant microchip maker. Last week one of the UK’s most successful companies received a billion-volt jolt when FTAlphaville forced Kraft-Heinz to admit to hitting on Unilever.
The company’s response was brisk. Get your thieving hands off us! We don’t fancy you at any price! Don’t you know we’re a national treasure? The reaction was enough to force Kraft’s backers into an ignominious retreat.
Under Paul Polman, its Dutch CEO, Unilever has successfully blended a long-term policy with its enthusiasm to become a good corporate citizen. Now, as if to disprove that he is not complacent after eight years in the job, he has launched a “comprehensive review” of the empire, promising a shorter long-term policy.
This sent the City’s dealmakers into a frenzy: share buybacks, hiving off foods ‘n’ fats, a takeover of Colgate, spin out home care and refreshment…there is no end to the exciting things they would like Unilever to do. Just don’t mention those life-changing fees.
It’s true that Mr Polman did look a trifle smug when he compared Unilever to a non-governmental organisation for doing good. Less pontificating on global warming and more on the joys of Magnum Espresso Black would be welcome. His sensitivity to criticism was once exposed during a tetchy press conference when asked whether he had considered buying a Unilever product for his thin skin. And yet…the bigger danger now is that Mr Polman decides that only a dramatic gesture will demonstrate that success is not turning into complacency.
This is not a company in crisis. There is no convincing case for radical reform merely to follow City fashion. Us Unilever shareholders are a loyal lot, with 70 per cent of the shares being held for more than seven years, but Kraft’s assault has exposed the share structure with its Dutch Siamese twin as a possible poison pill (Berenberg’s analysts say not) which is ripe for reform. Dealing with that, and bringing the long term a little nearer, is surely enough for now.
A merging market, or not
It is now a year since the bosses of the London Stock Exchange and Deutsche Bourse agreed that their businesses would be better together. Conveniently, the London CEO Xavier Rolet announced that he was buzzing off, leaving his Deutsche opposite number, former Goldman Sachs banker Carsten Kengeter, in charge.
The little matter of the British referendum was, we were told, irrelevant. Traders could save €450m a year from posting one set of collateral rather than the two they need today, and since the shareholders in the exchanges reckoned that much of that gain would not be wasted on the customers, they voted to merge.
How long ago it seems. Brexit turns out not to be quite so irrelevant after all, as was pointed out here (more than once). This week the British MPs debated the issue, and did not much like what they saw, while Margrethe Vestager is about to rule on whether the EU will allow the deal. The exchanges have been offering desperate further concessions to help her see things their way.
This deal was initially described in Inside London as horse and rabbit pie, and concluded: “The Deutsche CEO is clearly a hungry man, but on these terms he should not be allowed to eat the rabbit.”
Cheltenham’s for racing, apparently
After Lloyd’s of London, Cheltenham racecourse. Next month’s festival may find more punters actually watching the races, rather than fighting each other to reach the bar(s). In order to discourage fighting, customers will be limited to buying four alcoholic drinks at a time. Expect a brisk secondary market (many of the visitors from the City do this sort of thing every day) in nil-paid drinks rights for the thirstier punters to bid for. As for Lloyd’s, its ban on daytime drinking only applies to its staff. Those with particularly awkward underwriting propositions should still seek their man in a select bar nearby – unless he’s gone to Cheltenham, of course.
This is my FT column from Saturday. Since then the penny seems to have dropped with the London Stock Exchange that Ms Vestager is a woman with a mind of her own who can see a potential monopoly a kilometre away.