Unilever investors gear up for fresh tussle over headquarters
today Mar 21, 2019
Some of Unilever's biggest investors in the UK are planning to put renewed pressure on the consumer goods giant to abandon the idea of ditching its dual headquarters in favour of the Netherlands.
The maker of products such as Dove soap and Ben & Jerry's ice cream backed down in the face of a rebellion by UK investors in October, but said in January it was still considering ditching its Anglo-Dutch structure.
The company had said that becoming a single legal entity would simplify its operations and facilitate deal-making. Many UK shareholders oppose the move that would see them forced to sell the shares. Others dispute the strategic rationale.
"It's definitely not gone away from their thinking... they still believe it is right for the business," said Mirza Baig, Global Head of Governance at Aviva Investors, the 20th biggest investor in the PLC shares, Refinitiv data showed.
At the company's full-year results in January, Unilever Chief Executive Alan Jope described the issue as "important, but not urgent". He said a simpler structure still made sense but he needed to work out how to do it. He said he had no specific timeframe.
A Unilever spokeswoman had no further comment on Thursday.
One top-10 investor said they wanted to raise the issue at the May 2 annual general meeting even though the company is unlikely to make a fresh push for a move until political uncertainty caused by Brexit and European elections is out of the way.
The investor said he was annoyed the plan was still on the table and planned to vote "tactically" against certain board re-elections.
"We only won round one, which was stopping them doing what they'd tabled. But that issue hasn't gone away," he said.
A second top-10 investor pointed to Unilever's Vice Chair and Senior Independent Director Youngme Moon as a likely target for shareholder dissatisfaction.
"You need to ask the SID what exactly it was they were doing (amidst the October rebellion), given the fact so many of the leading shareholders were that unhappy."
A third top-10 investor said she would meet the company in the run up to the AGM to make it clear nothing had changed.
"Why do you think all these savers who invested in your company as UK savers through a UK-only vehicles would today be happy to do what they were not happy to do 6-7 months ago?"
The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had originally looked to scrap its 15 percent tax on dividends - an extra burden for British shareholders - in an effort to woo Unilever to move. However, it was seen by Dutch voters as a gift to rich foreigners and the plan was dropped.
There are also political tensions standing in the way of any fresh attempt to move, both in Britain and the Netherlands.
"Of course, they're holding their powder dry; they're not committing to anything until they see what the shape of Brexit is," said the first top-10 investor.
As the UK shareholders ramp up the pressure to keep Unilever's London listing, they will also have in mind that investors here don't want dual-listed company Royal Dutch Shell to follow suit.
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