In a statement, Unilever said Mr. Rice, 54, had decided to retire. Kevin Havelock, 49, chairman of Unilever's U.K. business, will replace Mr. Polk as president of the U.S. business in March, the company said. Dave Lewis, who heads the home and personal care business in the U.K., will succeed Mr. Havelock there.
Mr. Havelock will be the fourth executive to head Unilever's $9 billion U.S. business in as many years. That doesn't count Harish Manwani and Alan Jope, who each headed Unilever's U.S. home and personal care business for a year or less before taking charge of the company's Asia/Africa business and its global spreads, dressings and oils business, respectively.
A spokesman for Unilever said Mr. Rice's retirement wasn't planned. "This is John's decision to retire early, and one has to respect that," he said, but added: "We're really pleased with the quality of people we have on the [U.S.] business."
Close of office
Mr. Havelock will oversee closing of the company's Greenwich, Conn., office by 2008 and the relocation of the skin-care and laundry marketers there to Englewood Cliffs, N.J., where the food and beverage business is headquartered.
Since 2005 -- the first year in the company's One Unilever restructuring -- most marketing executives have shifted to new jobs or roles in a newly unified and downsized management structure. Overall, CEO Patrick Cescau has reduced the ranks of Unilever's top 1,200 managers by 500 since early 2005, with the job cuts falling most heavily in Europe.
Unilever's board also is expected to name a new non-executive chairman in February, likely to be Michael Treschow, chairman of Sweden's Telefon Ericsson and former CEO of Electrolux, according to published reports. The new chairman will replace Antony Burgmans, former co-CEO, who has promised to step down by May.
Mr. Polk, too, brings an unusually outside perspective to Unilever's top management as the only one of five top operating chiefs reporting to Mr. Cescau who was recruited into the company above entry level. The fast-rising executive came to Unilever as chief marketer of its U.S. food and beverage business in 2003 after 16 years at Kraft Foods.
Chaos aside, Unilever has been doing better of late. Though its organic top-line growth still lags that of rivals Procter & Gamble Co., Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Reckitt Benckiser, it has narrowed the gap in recent quarters, and its stock is up 23% on the year.