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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.

“This company needed to accelerate its change in the right direction to become truly competitive,” Polman tells Institutional Investor in an interview. “And the crisis provided a burning platform.”

As part of his turnaround program, Polman did his fair share of pruning. Unilever reduced its global workforce by 6 percent in 2009, to 163,000, and cut costs by €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion). But the executive isn’t the simple slash-and-burn type. He increased spending on advertising and promotion by €350 million last year and redesigned Unilever’s global distribution structure in a bid to generate growth. No longer would local subsidiaries (Unilever operates in 170 countries) be able to decide whether or not to market a new group product. Instead, they would be expected to push all new products unless they could demonstrate that a particular item wouldn’t suit local tastes. Under this new “One Unilever” campaign, as Polman calls it, the company for the first time began globally marketing a product developed in China — small tubs of Knorr bouillon in a jelly paste instead of the traditional cube.