With operations in 190 countries and products used by 2.5 billion people every day, Unilever plc (UL) is the closest thing Earth has to a truly omnipresent company. The end-users of Unilever’s wares number in the billions. If you’ve ever washed your hair, used a brand-name cotton swab, or applied brand-name petroleum jelly to your chapped lips, it’s almost certain that you’ve used a Unilever product or products. But the company is now looking to focus on faster growth segments and shedding some of its businesses. In December 2017, the company announced the sale of its spreads business to private equity firm KKR for nearly $8 billion. It is technically considered a recession-resistant company.

Key Takeaways

  • Unilever is a massive multi-national, multi-billion euro business.
  • They do most of their sales in the beauty, personal care, food, and beverage sectors.
  • Their home care is one of their fastest growing segments.
  • Main competitors include Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark.

Diversification

Boycotting Unilever would be more work than it’d be worth. Whether you wash your body with a run-of-the-mill shower gel like Dove, or an extreme one like Axe, or a family-friendly one like Lever 2000, you’re a Unilever customer. In fact, offering multiple brands in the same category is a Unilever specialty. In the unexciting world of margarine, the business it is selling now, Unilever offered Country Crock, Promise, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter…you get the idea. No matter how particular your tastes are, Unilever has found a way to cater to them.

Unilever divides its operations into four categories: Personal Care, Food (pasta sauce, soup etc.), Refreshment (which is more or less beverages, and junk food) and Home Care (cleaning products.)

Beauty and Personal Care

Personal Care is Unilever’s biggest segment, containing five of the company’s multi-billion-dollar brands and posting turnover of 20.6 billion euros in 2018. Those five brands are:

Dove: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, etc.

Rexona: antiperspirant, marketed as Degree in North America

Axe: the aforementioned body spray and related products

Lux: a soap sold around the world, but most popular throughout South Asia

Sunsilk: haircare

Earnings results released in Q3 of 2019 showed this segment growing 3.3% year-to-date. Although this is slightly under their targeted 3-5%, Unilever is poised to continue growing with the population, especially as the brands above are not only household names, but such products physically exist in millions of homes around the world.

Foods and Refreshment

As of the Q3 earnings report in 2019, Unilever's food sector remains a multi-billion-dollar enterprise resting on the largest food brand of Unilever: Knorr, the German maker of soups and sauces. Turnover during the same quarter amounted to 5 billion euros, just under the 5.6 billion euros posted from the personal care sector for the same period.

Food accounts for over 25% of Unilever's operating profit, and today half of Knorr’s sales originate in South Asia, Turkey, and the Middle East/North Africa. Some other food brands owned by Unilever are:

Magnum: premium ice cream bars

Hellman's and Best Foods: spreadable condiments

Lipton: tea and iced tea

Klondike: ice cream bars

Talenti: Italian-style gelato

2015 marked the watershed year in which Unilever unveiled a Baking, Cooking, and Spreading Business unit in Europe and North America, in the hopes of shifting eaters away from butter and toward more synthetic substitutes.

Home Care

Unilever’s Home Care sector is growing rapidly, deriving 80% of its sales in emerging markets. The over 10 billion euros that Home Care brought from Q3 2018 to Q3 2019 included fabric cleaning, home water purification, and laundry products. As the world becomes more advanced, demand for household items that are common in first-world countries will continue to increase. Some of the home care brands owned by Unilever are:

Dollar Shave Club: mail-order razors

Surf: laundry detergent

Robijn: fabric softener

Omo (Persil): global laundry brand

Blue Air: home air-purifying solutions

The bad news is that most of their currencies took a beating against the pound sterling and the euro in the late 10s, (of particular interest to Unilever, which has joint headquarters in London and Rotterdam). Fortunately for Unilever, and for any other company with extensive operations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, devaluation is a rare event. Product growth remains healthy in Unilever’s Home Care sector, up 5.4% in Q3 2019.

The Bottom Line

With many of its brands headquartered in locations as diverse as Singapore and Brussels, Unilever is the definition of a global conglomerate. Unilever’s talent lies in buying expensive but still undervalued brands and using the company’s giant operating cash flow to turn those brands into market leaders worldwide. Unilever does business in more countries than almost any company, and if you had to pick one multinational to eventually be the first to do business elsewhere in the solar system, Unilever would be on the shortlist of favorites.