Niall W.A. FitzGerald's career hasn't always been smooth sailing. In fact, he has the ignominious distinction of heading up one of Unilever Group's most embarrassing product blunders. When the laundry detergent Persil Power hit the market in 1995, it was trumpeted as the latest, greatest thing for fighting stains. But consumers complained that it ruined their clothes. Uh-oh. After just a few months, the media furor reached such a pitch that the Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods giant withdrew the product. Hardly a red-letter day for FitzGerald, then head of the detergent division.
Amazingly, FitzGerald's career at Unilever (UL) survived the fiasco. In fact, he became co-chairman of the $44 billion group just a year later. Since then, FitzGerald has been striving to wake up Unilever, which had come to symbolize the lumbering ways of European conglomerates.
Amazingly, there are signs FitzGerald is pulling it off. In 2000, he announced a five-year plan that aims to slash the number of brands Unilever owns from 1,600 to 400. He has gotten them down to 900 already.
It's this effort that confers star status on the 55-year-old Irishman. Coaxing more growth out of Unilever has proved a futile task for others. Not FitzGerald. He even intends to push margins up to 16% and top-line growth to 6%, from 1.6% last year.
To prod the company forward, FitzGerald, a sports and music lover, orchestrated a number of acquisitions last year, including dietproducts company Slim-Fast Foods, ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade, and Bestfoods, which runs a stable of U.S. brands, such as Hellman's. Revenues for the first quarter of this year were up 20%, to $11.6 billion. Good, but more is needed: Operating profits rose less than 1%, to $962 million. For FitzGerald, a man who has run marathons, there are still tough decisions to make before he drags this company into the future.