Unilever boss Antony Burgmans faced strong shareholder criticism at the annual general meeting of the food-todetergents group yesterday, but still managed to get elected chairman with an overwhelming majority of votes.
Mr Burgmans now becomes non-executive chairman of a single Unilever board rather than head of Dutch Unilever NV as the consumer goods giant seeks to sweep away its cumbersome dual structure after a disastrous 2004 on the trading front.
Some shareholders blamed Mr Burgmans for the Anglo-Dutch company's disappointing performance, but 98.4 per cent of Unilever NV/Plc's shareholders at its Rotterdam meeting voted for him to continue to lead the company.
The maker of Dove soaps, Knorr soups and Lipton tea is trying to reignite sales growth after a dismal 2004 when it gave its first profit warning in a 76-year history, and last week it saw first-quarter sales growing and margins expanding.
Mr Burgmans is scheduled to stay chairman of Unilever until 2007, while Unilever Plc chairman Patrick Cescau moves to become chief executive in a simplification of top management.
Mr Burgmans came under pressure from an influential Dutch shareholders association, VEB, which asked investors to vote against his appointment and said Unilever should consider whether more value would be created by a break-up of the world's third-biggest food group and top soaps and detergents company.
It accused him of bearing partial responsibility for the failure of Path to Growth, Unilever's 2000-2004 strategy. When pushed on a possible split of Unilever, Mr Burgmans replied that the group was always scrutinising its portfolio but added that the size of Unilever did matter when dealing with some of the world's biggest and most powerful retailers.
VEB also wanted an analysis on why Path to Growth, which aimed to boost sales and profit margins, failed and competitors such as Reckitt Benckiser and Danone posted higher underlying growth.
When asked whether Mr Burgmans would go before 2007, David Simon, Unilever non-executive and member of the remuneration committee said: "We have indicated that there can be some flexibility in this matter."
Unilever is yet to start the search for Mr Burgmans' eventual replacement but has said the person will come from outside the group. Mr Burgmans is chairing a review of the group's structure, including the NV and Plc legal organisation and its Rotterdam and London headquarters. He is due to report his findings by May 2006.
Unilever has blamed weak markets and the rigidity of its financial targets as reasons why it failed to keep up with competitors.
Last week, Unilever beat market forecasts with a 24 per cent jump in first-quarter net earnings to 934 million euros (£640 million), amid signs of a turnaround from the disastrous 2004.