By Saabira Chaudhuri
Unilever PLC has tapped the former head of Danish shipping company A.P. Moller Maersk as its new chairman, the second big change in the consumer giant's top ranks in the past year.
The maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise and Dove soap said Wednesday that Nils Andersen -- an existing board member -- would replace Marijn Dekkers with immediate effect. Mr. Dekkers' departure wasn't expected and comes after less than four years in the role.
The boardroom change comes the same year that Alan Jope became Unilever's new CEO, replacing longtime chief Paul Polman. Under Mr. Jope, the company has worked to convince shoppers to spend more on higher-end personal-care products, while fending off upstart competitors. It has also grappled with volatility in key emerging markets like India and Brazil, as well as sluggish growth in Europe and the U.S.
Unilever said Mr. Dekkers, 62, would remain on its board as a nonexecutive director and that he was stepping down as chairman to allow him to focus on Novalis LifeSciences, an investment and advisory business he set up in 2017.
During his tenure, Unilever made big changes to its portfolio, selling its struggling spreads arm and buying higher-growth beauty brands and malt drink Horlicks. It also fended off a $143 billion hostile bid by Kraft Heinz Co.
However, Mr. Dekkers -- along with then CEO Mr. Polman -- also faced criticism from some investors over a proposal last year to ditch Unilever's London headquarters and consolidate the company's base in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. That plan was aborted after opposition from shareholders, some of whom weren't pleased with how Mr. Dekkers handled the matter, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Mr. Dekkers also upset some shareholders during meetings held in the wake of the Kraft bid, while his abrupt handling of questions on Unilever's performance at its 2017 shareholder meeting made others bristle, the person added.
Unilever declined to comment further on the rationale for Mr. Dekkers' departure. Unilever's usual maximum tenure for a chairman is nine years. The company didn't make Mr. Dekkers available for comment.
While Mr. Dekkers earned a reputation in his previous role as CEO of Bayer AG for shaking up what critics called a staid corporate culture, the appointment of Mr. Anderson is unlikely to bring major shifts in strategy. He has served on Unilever's board since April 2015.
That the 61-year-old Mr. Andersen is Danish, rather than British or Dutch, is also seen as a positive given the recent anger over the Rotterdam plan, the person familiar said.
Maersk ousted Mr. Andersen as CEO in 2016 when the company was battling the worst ocean-shipping downturn in years and a historic oil-price rout. It then split into two units, focused on transport and energy, which investors welcomed.
Before his time at Maersk, Mr. Andersen was CEO of Danish brewer Carlsberg A/S from 2001 to 2007.
Announcing his elevation Wednesday, Unilever cited Mr. Andersen's "significant business experience" and said he would step down as a director of BP PLC and as chairman of closely held Salling Group A/S. He will, however, remain as chairman of Dutch paint giant AkzoNobel NV.
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at email@example.com