Unilever's No. 2 Exec Vindi Banga Is Out

Mike Polk Becomes President-Global Foods, Home and Personal Care, the Most Senior Post Ever Held by an American

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Unilever's senior management is getting another overhaul, the latest of several in recent weeks, with the departure announced today of Vindi Banga, head of Unilever's global brand-development organization and arguably the company's No. 2 executive.

Vindi Banga
Vindi Banga
Mike Polk, who currently heads Unilever's Americas unit and has pulled double duty for more than a year while also filling the top North America post that previously reported to him, will take Mr. Banga's place as president-global foods, home and personal care. It will be the most far-reaching role ever for an American at the Anglo-Dutch company, as Mr. Polk will oversee the unit that develops the product lineup and global brand advertising for all of the $54 billion company's brands and its $7.2 billion annual advertising and promotion outlay.

The turmoil in Unilever's management ranks appears to have been caused by the hiring of former Procter & Gamble Co. and Nestle exec Paul Polman as CEO 18 months ago, prompting a gradual exodus of execs who had either hoped for that job or don't fit his management style.

Whereas Mr. Banga, 55, is a 33-year veteran of Unilever, Mr. Polk joined the company only in 2003 after more than 16 years at Kraft Foods. Mr. Polk, 49, begins his new job on May 1, but Mr. Banga will stay on through the end of the month. Replacing Mr. Polk as president-Americas will be Dave Lewis, who now heads Unilever's U.K. and Ireland business and has experience with the company in Indonesia and Latin America.

Mike Polk
Mike Polk
The moves follow the announcement last month that Simon Clift will leave as Unilever's chief marketing officer on April 1, to be replaced as chief marketing and communications officer by Keith Weed, currently exec VP-home care and hygiene.

Jim Lawrence, Unilever's chief financial officer, announced he was leaving late last year after people close to the company said he was among candidates passed over to become CEO when Mr. Polman was appointed in September 2008. He was replaced by banking executive Jean-Marc Huet.

In a phone interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Banga confirmed he had also been a serious candidate to become CEO of Unilever when Mr. Polman was chosen in late 2008, but added that was "not really" the reason for his decision to leave.

Transformation to global marketer is complete
The Unilever board "decided in its wisdom to bring in someone from the outside world, Paul Polman, who's a very capable CEO, who's hit the ground running and I think is a great guy," Mr. Banga said. "I've really spent 18 months working very closely with him ensuring the transformation we began five years ago is really secure."

He said one reason he's leaving is that much of his in work transforming Unilever from a collection of individual operating and country units into a coherent global marketer in the past five to six years is done.

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"We've been able to transform [Unilever] from a collection of local brands and companies into a global powerhouse," he said. Unilever is growing share again globally, he said, "which it hasn't in a long time ... and now when we do a global innovation, we hit 70 or 80 countries, whereas in the past we used to hit two or three countries in a year."

Mr. Banga said he is mulling a couple of opportunities at other "consumer-facing" companies, which he declined to specify, other than that they were not necessarily in consumer products.

Unilever has had considerable change at the top after a period of stability immediately following Mr. Polman taking over as CEO. Speculation about the likely departures of several top executives -- including Mr. Clift, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Banga -- ultimately proved correct. One exception is Mr. Polk, who is staying, in an expanded role, despite speculation he would leave.

Between the vacancy in the top North American post, a new Americas chief coming from the U.K., and several departures in Unilever's U.S.-based brand development organization as much of their work shifted to the company's London headquarters, Unilever's management pool in the U.S. also has dwindled in the past year.

But in an e-mail, Mr. Polman said Unilever has plenty of management talent in the U.S. and globally. He described Mr. Weed as a "great marketer" with strong Unilever experience, "great results" and expanded scope of duties and status. He's the first CMO to join Unilever's executive committee, though Mr. Clift did also report to Mr. Polman.

The transition to Mr. Polk from Mr. Banga, he said, "has been well-planned and prepared." Mr. Lewis coming to the Americas, he said, brings a "great track record" and extensive global experience, with the internal promotion showing Unilever's depth of talent. The North American position, Mr. Polman said, "will be filled as expected."

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