UNILEVER'S CONTINENTAL SHIFT; NORTH AMERICAN UNITS LIKELY TO BE COMBINED IN '96

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Unilever NV, the $55 billion Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, is analyzing a global reorganization that would unite its assorted North American companies under one corporate banner.

Now, Unilever U.S. acts as a holding company for diversified companies, from Van den Bergh Foods Co. to Good Humor-Breyer's ice cream (including Gorton's SeaFoods), Thomas J. Lipton Co., Lever Bros. and Chesebrough-Pond's, with about $11 billion in North American sales.

Unilever spends an estimated $410 million on measured media in the U.S. annually. It's not expected the reorganization would result in a change among the giant's core agencies, including J. Walter Thompson Co., McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Ogilvy & Mather and Ammirati & Puris/Lintas. But current marketing and sales positions in categories and companies could be consolidated.

Niall FitzGerald, a member of the special committee and the man who will succeed Unilever NV Chairman Michael Perry Aug. 1, has responsibility for a global reorganization study, confirmed a Unilever U.S. spokesman.

He dismissed as "strictly rumor" that a new North American unit is imminent.

SOMETIME IN '96

But analysts and company insiders claim that is the plan. Said one executive, "There have been a lot of meetings about how to sort it out. We are hearing that something will happen in 1996."

He said one possibility is combining all U.S. and Canadian units, with two divisions: foods and non-foods. Executives said to be under consideration for key roles include Jean Martin, chairman of personal products in Europe, and Charles Strauss, president-CEO, Lever Bros.

"The way it is structured now is not working," said PaineWebber analyst Andrew Shore, in New York. "They need to focus more on cost structure to be competitive...Their operating margins are only 8.8% vs. 12.5% for Procter & Gamble."

PROBLEMS IN U.S.

Said one industry consultant, who asked not be identified but believes a consolidation will take place by June: "Their U.S. business profits are dwarfed by their global profits. U.S. sales account for approximately 25% of business but 15% or so of profits...The opportunity here is clout. They don't seem like a big player, though they are. They're a whole host of players operating autonomously...They can lower costs, eliminate redundancies and gain clout."

Michael Wilke contributed to this story.

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