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Pension funds urge Unilever to stick to long-term policy

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Several large Dutch pension funds have urged Unilever to refrain from increasing shareholder value at the expense of its long-term policy.

In an open letter, the metal schemes PMT and PME, as well as their €114bn asset manager MN, said the multinational company should keep its focus on sustainability and return for the long term.

Unilever has said it would investigate how it could increase its shareholder value, after it successfully fought off a takeover bid from US conglomerate Kraft Heinz last week.

Kraft Heinz had offered $143bn (€135bn). As of 28 February, Unilever’s market cap on the London Stock Exchange was £114bn (€133.6bn).

In the pension funds’ letter, which also received support from the €443bn pension manager APG and insurer ASR, the metal schemes said that “creating real shareholder value meant a long-term focus”.

During the past years, Unilever – headed by chief executive Paul Polman – was known for its focus on sustainability.

PMT and PME emphasised that, because of this explicit philosophy, the company had been an attractive investment option “as it came with understanding of markets, defining scarcity as well as innovatively responding to changes”.

In their opinion, increased annual turnovers and sustainability targets could be combined for lasting shareholder value.

However, they conceded that cost reductions as well as divesting less profitable parts of the company could be part of a long-term strategy and sustainability goals.

Investors had suggested dividing the company into separate firms for food and household products, the divestment of its margarine division, or a share buyback programme.

A spokesman for MN said commenting on specific suggestions would be too early, “as Unilever hasn’t yet announced concrete plans”.

Dutch news daily De Volkskrant quoted a spokesperson for ASR as saying: “Sticking to a sustainable course will, based on our experience, lead to equal returns as well a a better world.”

An APG spokesman said that the asset manager shared the pension funds’ concerns, but also underlined the importance of a high share value, “as this would make a takeover bid more difficult”.

The €199bn asset manager NN IP, which has voting rights of more than 9% in Unilever through preferential shares, declined to comment on the company’s market value.

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