x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Unilever holds nerve over Egypt

As multinational firms including General Motors and Electrolux report operations affected amid Egypt's cycle of spiraling violence, Unilever has been increasing sales in the country.

A woman walks past a shop in downtown Cairo. Unilever bucked a trend by posting double-digit growth across the Mena region. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
A woman walks past a shop in downtown Cairo. Unilever bucked a trend by posting double-digit growth across the Mena region. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Unilever is bucking a trend among multinationals that are reporting their operations have been hurt by the spiralling violence in Egypt.

Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive who was in Dubai this week, said business had grown across the board since the uprising.

Other companies including General Motors, the German chemicals firm BASF and Electrolux have either fully or partly resumed operations in the past few days. Concerns over worker safety had prompted the shutdowns as the economy suffered raising fears that efforts to stimulate growth and output were being further undermined amid the security crackdown.

GDP might have expanded about 2 per cent in the fiscal year that ended in June, while the budget deficit might have widened to more than 13 per cent of economic output, the Egypt government said this month.

Unilever, which does not disclose full details about its financial performance in the region, posted double-digit growth across the Middle East and North Africa.

“Consumers or citizens are looking for certainty,” said Mr Polman. “They look for brands that give them the comfort,” he said.

“You have less access to water or you cannot take a shower every day, you become more hygiene conscious so then you might use products like Domestos or Lifebuoy, which is a product that you use less than half the water of other bars of soap … we try to give them solutions so the more challenging situations consumers face, the better actually we thrive,” added Mr Polman.

The company employs 4,500 people in Egypt, who have to worry about the safety of their families, the company and its assets, he said. “And then they have to worry about how to make their products available to the Egyptians under sometimes different circumstances.”

The region’s potential is still enormous, but the company is tackling it bit by bit by introducing one or two brands from its vast portfolio, which includes Hellmann’s, Flora and Comfort, every year.

“You attract the right people, you build the capabilities and then it takes time to launch brands, so we like to launch one or two brands at a time,” said Mr Polman.

“We launched Pond’s, which is a very good brand here, or Fair & Lovely, which are both market leaders now, combined in that segment. Pond’s was launched four years ago now. Now it’s the best brand in the market. But you want to build these brands properly.”

The company is also continuing to invest in the region, which is one of the fastest growing for Unilever.

“We have invested in our tea facility right next door significantly, so we are probably one of the bigger investors in the region and we continue to look at other possibilities,” said Mr Polman.

“We just looked at another project that we decided to do this morning which we don’t want to go into right now.”