Unilever NV (UL) - Get Report shares rose to their highest levels in more than a month Tuesday after the group confirmed its full-year outlook and said it was closing to finalising plans that would simplify its dual-class structure.
However, that decision could signal a shift in the company's global headquarters from London to the Netherlands, a move that would be a huge blow to the British government's post-Brexit ambitions as it struggles to agree a working trade relationship with Brussels when its leaves the European Union in March of 2019.
Unilever, which knocked back an unsolicited $143 billion takeover bid from Warren Buffett-backed Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC) - Get Report earlier this year, vowed to review its business operations and create more value shareholders. In an update ahead of the group's annual investor presentations this week, Unilever said it still sees full-year underlying sales growth of between 3% and 5% and an improvement in its operating margin by at least 100 basis points.
"This review is progressing well and the Board considers that unification with a single share class would be in the best interests of Unilever and its shareholders as a whole, providing greater ongoing strategic flexibility for value-creating portfolio change," the company said. "Unilever is a geographically diversified business with a very small corporate centre compared to the scale of its global operations. Reflecting this, following any unification, we envisage one lean, agile corporate centre."
Should the proposals be accepted by the board, Unilever could opt to maintain a single corporate headquarters -- possibly in the Netherlands, where its first factories were built in 1872 -- even as it maintains listings in London and the United States.
Lawmakers in the Netherlands are close to scrapping a rule that forces companies to withhold a portion of the dividends they pay and submit them to the treasury instead. The law had led many companies -- including Unilever and Royal Dutch Shell plc -- to set up dual structures and headquarter in order to satisfy investor demands. Repealing the law could eliminate the need for separate headquarters and, in the words of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, create a "a strong industry made up of a rich tapestry of small businesses, mid-size businesses, but also large companies ... that we know are very important for jobs."
Unilever, which makes well-known brands such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Dove soap, has a global workforce of around 168,000 people, with around 7,500 based in the United Kingdom and 3,200 in the Netherlands.
However, Unilever CEO Paul Polman told the Financial Times Tuesday that while simplifying the company's corporate structure would provide "greater ongoing strategic flexibility for value-creating portfolio change", he wasn't ready to take a decision on where the group's offices would ultimately end up, calling it a "30 to 50 year decision".
"I'm advocating to postpone decisions because it's a moving playing field - with political turbulence out there," he said. "The emotions of the moment are really the issue. It's on all sides nowadays - of that you have to be clear. The board is going to take a 30 to 50-year decision. We want to do that well and we want to do that properly."
Unliever shares were marked 2% higher by mid-morning in London and changing hands at 4,323 pence each, the highest since Oct. 18. The stock has risen around 33.5% since early February when the Buffett-backed takeover bid and is now valued at $171 billion.
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