Many investors were skeptical 18 months ago when the Anglo-Dutch consumer products maker Unilever designated an outsider, Paul Polman, to take over as CEO at the start of 2009. Not that Polman didn’t have fans. The Dutchman enjoyed a strong reputation, having risen during 26 years at Procter & Gamble Co. to head of U.S. operations and later winning plaudits for bolstering transparency during a two-year stint as CFO of Switzerland’s Nestlé. But Unilever had embarked on several restructuring programs over the years only to disappoint investors each time. The company’s repeated pledges to become as profitable as its rivals appeared to have a shorter shelf life than many of its products.

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Polman, who had lost out in the race to become Nestlé’s CEO the year before, was determined to prove he was up to the job. Taking charge in the midst of the worst recession in decades, he used the economic crisis as a tool to force through fundamental changes in personnel and strategy. He jettisoned sales targets that the previous regime had established and almost always failed to meet. Instead, he told his managers and investors that the only target that mattered was volume growth. Then he made wholesale changes to his management, replacing about 60 of the company’s top 100 executives. To underscore the urgency of implementing change, he gave the new team 30 days to produce turnaround plans for underperforming ­businesses.