Unilever co-chairman seeks the next waves

A recent interview of Unilever co-chairman Niall FitzGerald in the May 24 issue of the Wall Street Journal doesn’t directly address the business of building packaging machinery.

But FitzGerld’s insights about the retail environment of the future are useful to packaging equipment OEMs because they’re the ones who have to design and build the packaging equipment that will let Unilever and other packaged goods companies like Unilever meet retailers’ evolving needs.

FitzGerald sees further consolidation of retailing coming to the United States, and he sees Wal-Mart continuing to grow stronger. Does he see this as a threat to Unilever? Quite the opposite. He sees it as an opportunity for Unilever to grow faster. Communications with Wal-Mart, he emphasizes, are rarely about pennies off the case. Most of the dialog is about driving cost out of the supply chain, a mission that will benefit not only Unilever and Wal-Mart but the consumer as well, says FitzGerald.

FitzGerald also makes clear in the interview that the pace of change in the marketplace is not about to diminish any time soon, and that it will be Unilever’s job to constantly adjust its product portfolio to keep up with these changes. He compares it to being a surfer. No matter how talented surfers may be, they don’t go anywhere if they sit quietly on their boards on a still sea. Only by paddling to where the waves are will they ever achieve success. And that, says FitzGerlad, is essentially what Unilever must do with its product portfolio: Constantly paddle to where the next wave is.

What does this mean to packaging machinery OEMs? It puts a premium on their ability to build machines that let the Unilevers of the world be nimble. That means machines that are versatile, flexible, and modular, machines that are standardized in their programming language so that they can be quickly installed and integrated and easily changed over. Such characteristics have always been important, but never more so than now.

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