We have read in the media that Unilever is investigating options for "accelerating delivery of shareholder value". Nevertheless, this attempt to reassure shareholders causes us concern. For us as shareholders, creating real shareholder value means focusing on the long term, as Unilever has demonstrated so well in recent years.
As pension investors, our main task is to invest the pension contributions made to provide a good pension for the affiliated members in the metal industry. Our aim is to create a sustainable and liveable world, because we also accept our responsibility for the world in which people receive their pension. In fact, our aim of creating a sustainable society is logically consistent with the long-term horizon of our investments. We are convinced that companies that perform well in terms of ESG factors and have their sights set on sustainable long-term development will ultimately perform better financially. These are companies that are aware of the impact they have on society and take this into account in a responsible way. As far as we are concerned, there is no contradiction between creating shareholder value and focusing on the long term.
As far as we are concerned, there is no contradiction between creating shareholder value and focusing on the long term
Besides already being a committed investor, we are increasingly moving towards a more conscious selection of the companies in which we invest. This means that we are expressly considering how they deal with risks and opportunities in the area of the environment and society. This is not inconsistent with assessing the financial and economic environment in which the company operates, but is actually part of the assessment. The combination of the two can strike the desired balance between sustainable economic development on the one hand and stable financial growth on the other. A company like Unilever has demonstrated this in recent years and is an excellent fit in our portfolio.
Unilever's strong views on sustainability are actually what make the company an attractive investment for us. Not because Unilever is too busy improving the world but because attention to sustainability involves understanding markets, identifying scarcity and responding to change in an innovative way. We can see that this is Unilever's aim from its objectives: to double turnover while halving carbon emissions, i.e. not an "either-or" situation but hand-in-hand. This entails considering what kind of company is needed in order to continue to have a right to exist in the long term, thereby continuing to generate shareholder value.
The fact that Unilever wants to drive up profitability as quickly as possible after the attempted takeover by Kraft Heinz should not, in our view, mean that the group departs from its long-term course. A well defined long-term vision and clear sustainability objectives do not preclude cutting costs or shedding less profitable parts of the business. Profitability and sustainability go hand-in-hand. But too strong a short-term focus by investors and companies can prevent real economic activity that forms the basis of sustainable growth and development of the economy.
As shareholders, we therefore give Unilever the following advice: stay on course!
Inge van den Doel is Chief Investment Officer of the Metal and Engineering Industry Pension Fund (PMT)
Eric Uijen is Chair of the Executive Board of the Metal and Electrical Engineering Industry Pension Fund (PME)
Gerald Cartigny is Chief Investment Officer of asset manager MN