Burgmans, Antony 1947–

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Antony Burgmans

Chairman, Unilever N.V.; vice chairman, Unilever PLC

Nationality: Dutch.

Born: February 13, 1947, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Education: University of Stockholm, Sweden, BA (date unknown); University of Lancaster, United Kingdom, MA (date unknown).

Family: Married; children: two.

Career: Lever Brothers, 19721982, marketing assistant and marketing and sales positions; Unilever Netherlands, 19821985, marketing and sales director; Unilever Germany, 19851988, marketing director; Unilever Indonesia, 19881990, chairman; Unilever, 1991, director; 19911994, personal products coordinator; 19941996, European Foods Business; 19961998, Business Group president, Ice Cream and Frozen Foods Europe, and chairman, Unilever Europe Committee; Unilever N.V., 19981999, vice chairman; 1999, chairman; Unilever PLC, 1999, cochairman.

Address: Unilever N.V., Weena 455, 3013AL Rotterdam, the Netherlands; http://www.unilever.com.

Antony Burgmans chaired Unilever N.V. and cochaired Unilever PLC, the giant Anglo-Dutch multinational company and largest manufacturer of food and personal-care products in the world. In recognition of his long and distinguished career with the company, in 2003 he was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by his alma mater, Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Oliver Westall, orator at Lancaster Management School's graduation ceremony on December 3, 2003, at which Burgmans received his honorary doctorate, said that Burgmans "demonstrated flair while a student, financing his studies in part by taking cash from faculty at poker." In a more serious vein, Westall singled out three areas in which Burgmans had made outstanding contributions: as one of the top marketing executives in the world, in helping steer Unilever through a major transformation, and in advocating social and ecologic responsibility by big business.


Burgmans was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and attended Nijenrode, a business school. He studied political and social sciences at Sweden's University of Stockholm and earned a master's degree in business at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. He began his career in 1972 with Lever Brothers, which had originated in 1884 when William Hesketh Lever, a shopkeeper's son, began selling Sunlight soap in the north of England. Unilever was created in 1930, when Lever merged with the Dutch margarine-manufacturing company Margarine Unie. Through a long succession of mergers, acquisitions, and expansions, Unilever had become, by the end of the 20th century, the largest manufacturer of packaged consumer products in the world. By early 2000 their 1,600 brands included Birds Eye, Dove, Lipton, Sunlight, Wishbone, Sun-silk, Pepsodent, and Bertolli, and they even provided out-of-season fruit and flowers grown in such countries as Kenya to markets throughout Europe.

During his early years in marketing with Unilever, Burgmans contributed substantially to the international success of the company. After spending 1988 through 1990 as chairman of Unilever Indonesia, he returned to the Netherlands, was made a board member and assumed responsibility for the company's international home- and personal-care products operations. Under his guidance the company purchased Cheseborough-Ponds. In 1996 Burgmans was given responsibility for ice cream and frozen foods throughout Europe and later that year was appointed chairman of the European Committee with the responsibility of coordinating the company's entire European operations.

After becoming vice chairman with Niall FitzGerald of Unilever PLC in 1999, Burgmans helped implement the company's radical "Path to Growth" strategy. The objective of the five-year plan was to focus on fewer but more profitable brands to stimulate faster economic growth. Burgmans told a reporter for the Africa News Service that internal analyses showed that the further the company moved from brands and into businesses, such as shipping lines and chemical manufacturers, the less profitable it became (September 4, 2003). Thus, the decision was made to concentrate on what he called "fast-moving consumer goods." Burgmans explained in an interview with Nikkei Business that the three-part plan for growth would reduce Unilever's 1,600 brands to 400; dispose of assets unrelated to the company's strategy while acquiring stronger brands, such as Best Foods, Knorr, Hellmann's, and Ben and Jerry's ice cream; and invest approximately EUR 6 billion to reduce annual costs by about EUR 3 billion (January 6, 2003). Over the course of the program, 100 of Unilever's 350 factories in 90 countries were slated for closure and 25,000 of the 250,000 jobs worldwide for elimination10 percent of the company's workforce. This transition constituted one of the largest workforce reductions to date by a European company.

A BBC News report commented that senior Unilever staff members in the United Kingdom viewed Burgmans as the "hatchet man" (August 21, 2001). When asked during the interview with Nikkei Business about the proposed cutbacks, Burgmans responded: "If you plant all the seeds you have in your garden they will not grow well. With ample space they will grow swiftly. The same applies to business. With less brands and use of more management resources for them, the brands are certain to grow" (January 6, 2003).

As the company implemented its strategy, initial reports were positive. By the third quarter of 2003, slightly more than a year before the end of the five-year plan, operating margins had improved, and the sale of 110 less-profitable businesses meant that leading brands represented 92 percent of sales. By the end of the year, however, Delaney Report noted that Unilever share prices had dropped drastically and the company had twice lowered its annual growth target for that year (November 24, 2003).


The Delaney Report said that as profits dropped, Burgmans and FitzGerald began to micromanage, traveling to offices around the globe and focusing heavily on cost control. The report quoted a U.S. Unilever source as saying that Burgmans "has been a bully. He has come to [the U.S.] and has been beating up on everybody in North America, telling them they're responsible for [Unilever's] poor growth. He doesn't have the loveliest management style and you can imagine how he has made people feel." While some Unilever employees may have perceived Burgmans's management style as less than positive, Westall described him as tenacious, direct, and straightforward, with the ability to give and, in turn, receive great loyalty. At the ceremony at which Burgmans received his honorary degree, Westall referred to Burgmans's analytical skill as "formidable"an ability that allowed him to solve complex problems and define a clear course of action. He noted that Burgmans took time to interview individual consumers in Unilever markets worldwide to keep up with consumer needs and trends and to devise strategies by which the company could best meet those needs. His strategy benefited both consumers and the company. "Antony Burgmans's task has been to provide direction and control, to ensure that this vast operation retains efficiency and focus on consumers' requirements. His objective is to clarify Unilever's activities," said Westall.


Burgmans made a deliberate effort to keep abreast of the fast-changing world of international business marketing, development, and management. In 1987, while he was still marketing director for Unilever Germany but already had been chosen to become chairman of Unilever Indonesia, he took three months off to attend Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Programme (AMP). The 60 participants in the program worked and studied solidly from 6:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. and often until midnight. "The programme was designed to put you in the position of chief executive," he told Della Bradshaw of the Financial Times (May 19, 2003). He explained that with the international mix (only 50 percent of the class was American), participant interaction created an ideal atmosphere for learning and broadening perspectives.

More than fifteen years later Burgmans still maintained his association with Harvard through his involvement with the school's European research center in Paris and specifically with the finance professor, Dwight Crane, and the dean, Kim Clark. Bradshaw quoted Burgmans as saying: "These are extremely stimulating people who take a deep interest in business." Because he benefited personally from his experience with Harvard, Burgmans firmly believed that business schools encourage executive development. Each year Unilever sent managers to AMPs conducted by prestigious business schools, including IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, ranked number two of the top 18 non-U.S. business schools in the world. In fact, at the request of Burgmans and FitzGerald, IMD ran "Enterprise for Growth" workshops for Unilever in which one or the other of the vice chairmen participated.


In association with his responsibilities at Unilever, Burgmans helped steer the Global Commerce Initiative, the objective of which was to promote broader international trade while encouraging more universally accepted standards for such trade. Burgmans was committed to promoting a higher and more sustainable quality of life throughout the world. "He cannot see business as sustainable if around it, society is falling apart," said Westall (Lancaster University Management School awards ceremony). On the ecology front Burgmans initiated formation of the Marine Stewardship Council, a charity that promoted international standards for sustainable fishing, through partnership between Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund. "No fish, no fish fingers," Burgmans once said.

His dedication to global ecology was also evident in the fact that he chaired the CEO panel at the World Water Forum in the Hague, the Netherlands, in 2000 and again in Osaka, Japan, in 2003. A criterion for sitting on the 13-member panel was environmental consciousness, and the participating 13 companies placed water consciousness high on their corporate agenda, devoting considerable funds to their objective. Burgmans believed that businesses and governments must work hand in hand and set priorities to address the critical issue of fresh water, particularly in third world countries. He pointed out that Unilever built water-treatment plants at their approximately 350 factories worldwide, noting that many other multinational companies work just as hard to address the water issue. He was not as confident when it came to governmental efforts, however. "When I see how much attention is given to the buildup of armies and the purchase of weaponry, I often wonder if the priorities are set correctly," Ruud Kreutzer quoted him as saying (Water Forum Shimbun, March 19, 2003). The panel also developed new concepts, entitled the Sustainable Water Facility, for funding water and sanitation efforts and published protocols for sustainable agriculture. Burgmans said that while only 13 companies participated on the panel, they represented the international business community in general. Kreutzer quoted Burgmans: "Our work is supported by hundreds of people behind the table on the podium. I'm not saying there isn't room for improvement, but I can say with confidence the majority of multinationals are behind us, and want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."


Burgmans's fascination and respect for wildlife gave him a keen interest in ecology, his interest in 16th- and 17th-century Dutch art led to chairmanship of the supervisory board of the Mauritshuis and Bredius Museum in the Hague, and his love of soccer made him an avid fan of Feyenoord. Burgmans was on the ABN AMRO Bank's supervisory board and the Allianz AG's advisory board, and he cochaired the Global Commerce Initiative. His recreation included golf, skiing, and wildlife expeditions with his wife into the African bush. Apart from his native Dutch, Burgmans spoke German, English, a smattering of French, and Bahasa Indonesian.

See also entry on Unilever PLC/Unilever N.V. in International Directory of Company Histories.

sources for further information

Bradshaw, Della, "Despite a Career of Achievement, the Unilever Chairman Says He Still Has Much to Learn," Financial Times (London), May 19, 2003.

Kreutzer, Ruud, "Corporates Come Together for Water Work," Water Forum Shimbun March 19, 2003.

"Our Strategy Is Paying Off, Says Unilever," Africa News Service September 4, 2003.

"Planting Seeds of Courage in Workers," Nikkei Business January 6, 2003.

"Unilever Chief Receives Honorary Degree," http://www.lums.lancs.ac.uk/news/225.

"Unilever Chief's Anti-Bribe Lines," BBC News August 21, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/1501124.stm.

"Unsettled at Unilever, as Upper Management Works to Restore Momentum," Delaney Report, November 24, 2003, p. 1.

Marie L. Thompson