Niall FitzGerald

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Chairman and chief executive officer, Unilever PLC; vice chairman, Unilever NV

Nationality: Irish.

Born: September 13, 1945, in Sligo, Ireland.

Education: University College Dublin, BS.

Family: Son of William FitzGerald, a customs officer, and Doreen Chambers; married Monica Mary Cusack, 1970 (deceased); married name unknown; children: three (from first marriage), one (from second marriage).

Career: Unilever, 1968–1975, accountant; 1975–1976, personal assistant to financial director; 1976–1980, overseas commercial officer; 1980–1987, chief executive of South African food business; 1987–1991, director of Foods and Detergents; 1991–1996, coordinator in Detergents; 1994, vice chairman of Unilever PLC; 1996–, chairman and CEO of Unilever PLC, vice chairman of Unilever NV.

Awards: Honorary Knight of the British Empire, 2002; Centenary Medal, Society of Chemical Industry, 2003.

Address: Unilever House, Blackfriars, London, EC4P 4BQ, England;

■ When the Irishman Niall FitzGerald became chairman of Unilever, the gigantic Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods conglomerate, he was the youngest and the first non-English person to be appointed to the position. His leftward-leaning philosophies often contrasted with those of other major corporate executives. He was a tenacious leader who viewed innovation and risk as inseparable partners in successful business ventures and advocated risk management—as opposed to risk aversion—as a fundamental aspect of leadership. His achievements prompted one analyst to call him "one of the darlings of the financial world" ( Media Guardian , July 7, 2003).

FitzGerald grew up in Thomondgate, Ireland, attending Christian Brothers school and then Saint Munchin's College, a traditional Catholic school in Limerick, Ireland, where pupils were routinely beaten by the priests. He studied diligently at University College Dublin and, while there, joined the Communist Party for a brief period. Sarah Ryle wrote in London's Sunday Observer that FitzGerald described himself as a "child of the sixties, with hair down my back, drawn to the hippie culture of 'make love not war'" (February 24, 2002).


Lever Brothers originated in 1884 when the shopkeeper's son William Hesketh Lever began selling Sunlight soap in the north of England. Unilever was created in 1930 when Lever merged with the Dutch margarine-manufacturing company Margarine Unie. Through subsequent mergers and acquisitions, Unilever grew to possess 1,600 brands, including Bird's Eye, Dove, Lipton, Sunlight, Wishbone, Sunsilk, Pepsodent, and Bertolli, selling those products in 150 countries and producing them in 90. In 2003 FitzGerald proudly announced that 150 million times a day, someone somewhere in the world chose a Unilever product.

In 1967 FitzGerald began his career with Lever Brothers of Ireland virtually by accident while doing a favor for a friend who was interviewing with the company. As he rose through the ranks, FitzGerald displayed an individualistic if not radical attitude. Rather than the usual company car, he requested a motorcycle; after becoming chief executive of food business in South Africa in 1987, he agitated for desegregated restrooms for his factory workers. In a Corporate Watch article, he described himself as driven and ambitious, with a need for neatness and order but having gained the reputation for creating chaos (1999).


By the time FitzGerald became cochair with Antony Burgmans, the company had come to symbolize what a BusinessWeek article called "the lumbering ways of European conglomerates" (June 11, 2001). A key part of FitzGerald's mission for the company was his "Path to Growth" strategy, which revolved around the negotiation of brands. The five-year, three-part plan implemented in 1999 aimed at acquiring stronger brands, selling off weaker ones, and reducing the number from 1,600 to two hundred. By 2001 nine hundred brands remained, an effort the BusinessWeek article said conferred FitzGerald with "star status" (June 11, 2001); continued divestitures brought that number to four hundred in 2004. Along the way, Unilever acquired Best Foods—which marketed brands such as Knorr, Hellmann's, and Skippy—for $24 billion, which was considered a major accomplishment for FitzGerald. Similarly important acquisitions were Ben & Jerry's for $223 million and Slim-Fast for $2.3 billion. FitzGerald was heralded by one analyst as one of the top food gurus in the world.

The Path to Growth plan also included the investing of approximately $6 billion to reduce annual costs by $3 billion. More than one hundred of Unilever's 350 factories in 90 countries were sold or closed and the work force was reduced by more than 25,000. Jeremy Warner, of the Web publication, said that even after the cuts FitzGerald seemed to be admired by his staff and had earned loyalty from his peers. "He's managed to develop an esprit de corp which is exceptional for a company of such a size and longevity," said Warner (February 13, 2004). FitzGerald was generally viewed by senior staff as the "good cop" while the cochairman Antony Burgmans was viewed as the "hatchet man" ( BBC News , August 21, 2001).

FitzGerald shaped the obese, unwieldy Unilever into a modern, high-performance company for which people were proud to work. Even though the company fell well short of its targeted sales growth of 5.5 to 6 percent in 2003, FitzGerald was still heralded as the company's savior. "Unilever wasn't exactly slipping into the sea when he became chairman, but it would by now have been doing so but for the changes he managed to push through," commented Warner (February 13, 2004).


FitzGerald was passionate about brands. "I want us to be (and I want us to be recognized to be) the very best brand-marketing company in the world. I want my company to be brand-obsessed—from the board to the factory floor," he said while receiving the Publicity Club of London Cup on behalf of the company (Unilever press release, November 21, 2003).

In a speech on October 14, 2003, to the Institute of Grocery Distribution Annual Convention, FitzGerald addressed several areas he felt were necessary to consider in building brands. One was to understand consumers as shoppers and to develop brands to meet their needs. Another was to unlock the creativity and enterprise of employees so that they could stimulate the growth of Unilever's brands.

With respect to understanding shoppers' needs, FitzGerald said that the concept of the "typical consumer, in a typical supermarket, doing a typical once-a-week shop" was no longer valid because of the huge number of choices available (Unilever press release, October 14, 2003). Thus, Unilever implemented a Europe-wide project aimed at better understanding consumers. Although this research concept was not original, he said, the fact that Unilever's brands were on almost every aisle in the supermarket—from laundry and cleaning products to personal care products to foods and beverages—allowed the company to analyze the consumer across a very broad spectrum. The goal of the project was to synthesize data collected across cultures, identify differences and similarities in shopping behavior, and then share that information with retailers to enhance prosperity for the supplier, the retailer, and the consumer alike. "The importance of cooperation between manufacturer and retailer is profound. We can only continue to build and create new brands by using our combined understanding of consumers to find solutions that satisfy their everchanging needs," he told his audience (Unilever press release, October 14, 2003).

With respect to endeavoring to unlock imagination and creativity in his research-and-development and marketing teams, two dimensions FitzGerald focused on were consumer insight and risk taking. He stated that manufacturers must always be one step ahead of consumers, knowing what they want even before they know themselves, figuring out where they are headed, and placing brands there. He declared intimacy to be the key to succeeding in this area, adding that the process was an art: "the ability to turn intimacy and insight into a compelling brand proposition—that is alchemy: the magic process of turning base metal into gold" (Unilever press release, October 14, 2003).


To develop this creative art in his R&D team, he encouraged them to push the research envelope. If something went wrong, he wanted them to learn from it and move on. When addressing his audience while accepting the Publicity Club Cup, he stressed the importance of innovation and risk, two factors "joined at the hip. Zero risk, zero innovation" (Unilever press release, November 21, 2003). He believed many companies shied away from risk; he promoted it, declaring that leaders necessarily work from high-risk positions. Differentiating between leadership and management, he saw managing as coping with complexity and leadership as coping with change. "Good managements bring a degree of order and consistency. But the leader must allow some chaos—even create chaos to liberate the risk taker. It's about emotional leadership," he added, with reference to creating an environment in which people feel they have permission to take risks and creating leaders who can develop followers (Unilever press release, November 21, 2003). He would go as far as to offer incentives and rewards to encourage risk because, he believed, well-calculated risks brought big rewards, particularly in brand marketing.

FitzGerald learned most of his business strategy from personal experience, admitting "cheerfully" that he made many mistakes in his career. One such mistake was the idea of putting scrubbing agents into Persil laundry powder. People rushed to try the product, which consequently shredded their clothes. Luckily, commented FitzGerald, Unilever leadership recognized that "part of the growth of any leader who has the courage to take risks is also to learn how to work through the consequences of failure" (Unilever press release, October 14, 2003). He emphasized that the right to risk must come with the right to fail; holding a leadership position meant being tolerant of the occasional failure while not using it as an excuse for poor performance. "One of my best bosses had a philosophy that people who didn't make enough mistakes should be fired," he said during his London Cup acceptance speech (Unilever press release, November 21, 2003).


FitzGerald was known for speaking his mind, drawing criticism from some sectors for being a staunch and outspoken advocate of free trade. An article in Corporate Watch described him as "one of the masterminds behind global corporate exploitation" (Autumn, 1999). Maximizing profits, the authors said, meant cutting costs, which meant minimizing workers' pay. The authors said that while FitzGerald donated generously to charities and ran the London Marathon—sponsored by Unilever's Flora brand, with proceeds going to Save the Children—one of FitzGerald's friends commented: "Don't be fooled by the charm. There is real steel underneath. You don't get to where he is without being very hard" (Autumn, 1999).

FitzGerald always defended Unilever's globalization policy. Ryle quoted him as saying, "I do get upset when people have a go at multinationals if they include us in that, because I know what we do. Whether Birmingham or Bangladesh, we apply the same principles" (February 24, 2002). He was always quick to point out and proud of the fact that Unilever was ever-conscious of, and indeed heavily committed to, the environment, sustainable fishing and agriculture, the crisis concerning fresh water, and wage-rate terms. He stressed that Unilever was a global company and that, in order for its business to continue to grow and profit, it was therefore his business to find ways to help developing nations become prosperous and wealthy—"because 85 percent of the world's population lives in the developing world" (February 24, 2002).

FitzGerald condemned the developed world's restrictive practices. He pointed out that if the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development allowed free-trade access to sub-Saharan countries, those countries would take in more than $20 billion annually in revenue. Instead, they received $14 million yearly in foreign aid, which, he said, ended up in the pockets of only a very few. In fact, as the one-time head of Unilever's South Africa business who befriended President Mbeki, FitzGerald developed a real concern for the country. He was quoted on the Food Ingredients First Web site as saying: "If I thought I could do something effective for Africa—not just run some grand institution, but actually achieve something—I would do it" (February 16, 2004).

Never one to mince words, FitzGerald criticized "fat cat" executive pay, called excessive pay-outs to ousted executives a "potential cancer" in society, and entered the emotional and controversial issue of a common European currency by pushing for the United Kingdom's adoption of the new monetary unit (Inland Review, March 15, 2003). He declared that British business would be unforgiving of a decision not to do so.


After a hugely successful career with Unilever, FitzGerald stunned England, Europe, and the entire business world when, on February 14, 2004, he announced his planned retirement on September 30 of that year. Not one to leave his company dangling, he devised a strategy to carry it through to 2010 and to streamline the boards of Unilever PLC and Unilever NV. In the unique new structure, the director of each board would come up for reelection each year. FitzGerald said, "By the end of this year we will have completed the Path to Growth program and, in the interests of an orderly succession, Patrick Cescau, Foods director, should be in place in good time to carry our strategy to the next stage" (Unilever press release, February 12, 2004).

See also entry on Unilever PLC/Unilever N.V. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Cheating'dun, Maurice, and Mark Mendacious, "He Has Donated to Building Cooperation and Peace in Northern Ireland, and Has Run the London Marathon for Charity. Now He Is a Corporate Executive Intent on Maximising Profits at Any Cost," Corporate Watch , Autumn, 1999,

Media Guardian , "Niall FitzGerald," July 7, 2003,,13483,990395,00.html .

"Risk Brings Rewards in Brand Communication," Unilever press release, November 21, 2003, .

Ryle, Sarah, "That's Not Sir to You," Observer , February 24, 2002.

"Understanding People to Build Brands," Unilever press release, October 14, 2003, .

"Unilever Board Changes," Unilever press release, February 12, 2004, .

"Unilever Chief's Anti-bribes Line," BBC News , August 21, 2001, .

"Unilever Co-Chairman Plans African Development Role," Food Ingredients First, February 16, 2004, .

Warner, Jeremy, "Outlook: Hard Act to Follow as FitzGerald Quits Unilever,", February 13, 2004, .

"Wyman Debate—15 March 2003," Inland Review , March 15, 2003, .

—Marie L. Thompson

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