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. 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 looking to focus on faster growth segments and shedding some of its businesses. In Dec. 2017, the company announced the sale of its spreads business to private equity firm KKR for 6.8 billion euros. Unilever is technically considered a recession-resistant company.
- 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.
- Unilever's main competitors include Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark.
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 sold to KKR, 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 three categories: Beauty and Personal Care, Foods and Refreshment, and Home Care.
Beauty and Personal Care
- 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 the third quarter of 2019 showed this segment growing 3.3% year-to-date. Although this is in the low end of their targeted 3% to 5% growth rate, 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 third quarter of 2019, Unilever's food sector remains a high-earning 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.
According to the 2019 annual report, food accounts for 32% 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
- Hellmann's and Best Foods: spreadable condiments
- Lipton: tea and iced tea
- Klondike: ice cream bars
- Talenti: Italian-style gelato
Unilever’s Home Care sector is growing rapidly, with sales growth in emerging markets a key driver for the company. The 10.8 billion euros in revenue that Home Care brought in during 2019 included sales from fabric cleaning, home water purification, and laundry products. Home Care sales for the year represented 16% of total operating profit for the company.
As the world becomes more advanced, demand for household items that are common in developed 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
- Blueair: 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 the third quarter of 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.