The comments from Paul Polman, chief executive of the Anglo-Dutch business, echo those of Akio Toyoda, the chief executive of Toyota, who said the Japanese carmaker would continue to produce cars in Derbyshire even if Britain left the EU.
In an interview with the Guardian, Polman said Britain should remain in the EU but Unilever’s UK sites, including three research and development centres, would not be affected by a vote to leave Europe. “The effectiveness of my research centre is the quality of the people I have there and the ideas coming out in terms of the innovations that we produce. We don’t make a decision on moving research centres around depending on if you are in the EU or not,” he said.
The comments will be a relief to Unilever’s 7,500 staff in the UK but also give hope to campaigners pushing for Britain to quit the EU, who argue that it would not damage the country’s economic prospects, or lead to significant job losses, if the country voted for Brexit in a referendum. British-based businesses are drawing up battle lines over a referendum, with US investment banks and retail grandee Sir Stuart Rose among the backers for the campaign to stay in the EU, while hedge fund owner Crispin Odey and Phones4U founder John Caudwell are backing Brexit.
Polman added that the R&D carried out by Unilever, including the £80m a year invested in research and education by the Leverhulme Trust, underlined the company’s importance to the UK. The consumer goods giant employs more than 170,000 globally and is valued by the stock market at £88bn. In the UK it operates from 18 sites, including seven factories and three research and development centres.
“Unilever is in 190 countries in the world,” said Polman, a Dutch citizen. “I am in every country basically, in any trading zone, in the EU, out of the EU. People need to buy shampoo, people need to eat their Knorr or Cup-a-soup, and they want to buy their Coleman’s and they want to buy their Magnum ice cream. They are not going to say that is function of if I am in the EU or if I am not in the EU.
“We have investments in every country, because our business doesn’t lend itself too much to transport if you have detergents or fabrics softener or ice cream. If there is a critical mass of population, which you happen to have here, then we invest anyway.”
Referring to the referendum, which could be held as soon as June, Polman said Britain was stronger as part of an “efficient trading bloc in Europe” and that it was “better to sit at the table to drive the changes than not to be invited to the table”. When asked whether Britain should quit the EU, Polman, who is Dutch, said: “No I don’t, I honestly don’t. I personally think it would be very good if Britain could stay.
“Britain came into the union, we shouldn’t forget that, when it had low economic growth. Britain got a lot of benefit from the union in terms of seeing its economic growth pick-up. Now people are questioning if that benefit is still there, but it would be good to remind ourselves where we were when we were not in.”
Polman added: “When the world is going towards more and bigger trading blocs, and the world is rapidly moving east and south as well, I think longer term we would better off as an efficient trading bloc in Europe.
“The discussion of being in and out of Europe should really rapidly move towards the advantages of being in or out, and what would it mean to be out. Because a Norwegian model or a Swiss model doesn’t address the refugee issue which seems to be a concern for some of the people.”
Unilever’s origins date back to 1885 when William and James Lever created Sunlight, the world’s first branded and packaged soap for washing clothes. Unilever was formed in 1930 when Lever Brothers merged with Dutch margarine maker Margarine Unie. The company has corporate head offices in London and Rotterdam.
This article was written by Graham Ruddick, for theguardian.com on Sunday 24th January 2016 16.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010