Friday interview: ‘I hope I’m never deliberately rude, I hope I’m direct’

Former Unilever chief, Niall FitzGerald, who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in the name of product research

Niall FitzGerald, former chief executive of Unilever and current chairman of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Niall FitzGerald, former chief executive of Unilever and current chairman of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

There was a period where Niall FitzGerald spent a fair amount of his time poking around strangers’ houses in foreign countries, opening their fridges and peeking into their loos. It was all strictly above board and came with the permission of the homeowners, but it may not have been quite what they were expecting when they invited a senior Unilever executive into their kitchens.

For FitzGerald, it was all part of the job, offering a route to understanding the consumer who was buying the company’s products and how they were using them. Without this, everybody was working in the dark, often without realising it.

At 69 and a decade clear of this mostly illustrious Unilever career that spanned more than 30 years and ended with him leading the group, FitzGerald is still very much a company man, who cares deeply about the business that formed his professional self.

His commitment is a curious thing in these days of five-year career plans and becomes even more so when FitzGerald recounts how it was purely by chance and an urge to play golf with a pal that he ever became involved with the consumer goods company in the first place.

He was working in Irish Shipping at the time, having recently graduated in commerce from UCD, and had planned to hit a few shots with a friend, who informed him at short notice that he needed to do a job interview on the way to the golf course.

FitzGerald duly took up a seat in the waiting room at Lever Brothers in Dublin’s Sherriff Street, stirring only when somebody asked him if he was a graduate and could he sit in on the panel interview because another candidate hadn’t shown up.

His ad-lib performance was so impressive that he got offered the job, a position he only accepted after much persuasion and a fancy lunch with the chairman some weeks later. His friend missed out. FitzGerald says there were no hard feelings, but what he probably means is that he managed to dismiss them with the charm that has doubtless helped to smooth his career since then.

With Unilever, a chairmanship of Reuters and several other high-profile roles now behind him, FitzGerald is well past the stage of doing things because he thinks he should.

These days he uses three criteria to decide whether to take on a new project or not: it must be interest him; he must feel he can make a difference; and it must be fun. “I won’t do it for money, ego or profile.”

He chairs eight different boards at the moment, including the UCD Michael Smurfit graduate business school advisory board, where he took up residence late last year.

Beyond his clear passion for the role of education in bettering society, UCD appealed because of its potential. FitzGerald believes it is an “under-exploited asset” in the world of international education, in that it offers quality degrees through English, it costs a lot less than equivalent studies in the US or the UK and it is based in an “outward-looking” city and country.

The chairman role, for which he jokingly says he did not apply, chimes with his position at the helm of the Leverhulme Trust in the UK, a body established at the wish of Unilever founder William Lever, which administers grants of £80 million each year.

FitzGerald has big plans for the Dublin job, which was offered to him by Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, dean of the business school. “I said to Ciarán, ‘are you ambitious?’.”

It seems he is, with the goal now on the Smurfit boardroom table to lift the school into the top 50 of its type around the world within five years. It was 73rd in a Financial Times ranking earlier this year.

“We need to do everything better,” says FitzGerald.

This will include internationalising the student body, getting close to corporate clients and trying to position the school as the “partner of choice”, for universities, technologists and other bodies. The school also needs to attract “the highest-quality faculty” it can, so that the student experience can be enhanced as far as possible.

And then there’s the money.

“The entity today is profitable as a standalone school of business, but much of its surplus goes to the rest of the university. We need to refine the strategy for the next five to 10 years.”

This will “probably” involve giving less to the university, he admits, but he adds that the school “will decline if we continue to do what we’re doing”.

He says the board has not yet arrived at a figure for necessary investment, but UCD can rely on nothing passing FitzGerald by in the journey towards it. He is still fresh from an eight-year stint as chairman of the British Museum in London, where he was described as “the best chairman we’ve had”, with his tenure coinciding with record rises in visitor numbers.

There was a period after he exited Unilever in 2004 when FitzGerald was linked with every top chairmanship going, but now that things have calmed, is he finally managing to skew the work/life balance further towards life?

FitzGerald bristles at the phrase, arguing that life and work can’t be placed tidily in separate boxes, with balance always depending on what best suits the individual. He does have some worthwhile insights on the issue, however, with key lessons learned around the time of his youngest daughter’s birth almost 14 years ago.

“I was a very strong advocate of trying to make us [Unilever] much more open to diversity,” he says, listing the various HR policies (job sharing and all the rest) the company had adopted to try to meet its stated goals on that front. He then had a realisation: “Whatever the policy was, people looked at what I was doing.”

Thus, a few simple tweaks in his own work schedule to reflect the arrival of a much-loved baby started unintentionally to revolutionise the collective Unilever approach to balance.

FitzGerald decided he was no longer going to go on business trips that ate into Saturday or started early on Sunday. He was no longer going to be available for breakfast meetings, and evening work engagements would be limited to two per week.

Lessons to learn

In his case, the ascent to the top of Unilever, after the initial hesitation back in Sherriff Street in 1966, was fast and international. After an early spell in Dublin, he moved through London, New York, the Netherlands and, crucially from a personal perspective, spent five years in South Africa.

Apartheid was still in its fullest swing when FitzGerald was asked in 1980 to head Unilever’s foods business there, its biggest international operation. He refused – this was a time when other global groups were leaving the country and, personally, he found the idea of the South African system repugnant.

Unilever’s then chairman, David Orr, did a good job in talking him round, persuading him that the company was trying to do its bit to shift the regime from the inside and possibly appealing to that activist in FitzGerald, who had enjoyed a period as a member of the Communist Party in his youth.

He ended up loving his time in the country, helping profits along while doing significant bits here and there to subtly undermine “reprehensible” rules.

“Ablution blocks” with separate toilets for “blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites” were streamlined to become simply male and female – an action that broke the law but led to no sanction, possibly because the then regime knew that South Africa needed Unilever just as much as Unilever needed South Africa.

“There was no point in us seeking to set an example if we were unsuccessful,” says FitzGerald, noting that other companies began to follow suit by being quietly disobedient. “It was the beginning of a process. Industry started to do things.”

During this time, FitzGerald came into contact with Nelson Mandela (Madiba) in his prison cell, beginning a relationship that he views as one of the most important in his life. The establishment of a Unilever scholarship for Africans later helped things along, with Mandela eventually asking FitzGerald to chair the Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust, a charitable body aimed at promoting social justice.

Missive treasured

He also speaks emotionally of the most flourishing tree in his 27-acre garden being the one he planted the day after Madiba came to lunch with his family in England. It is a resonance that he enjoys, and one which marries the emotional FitzGerald with his practical, go-getting executive self, a man who joined the Unilever board while still in his thirties.

That appointment was a statement that surely marked him out among his more mature peers as the man to watch. At the time, there were 20 people sitting on the board, all of whom were executives – a corporate governance practice that would not be accepted now.

Joining the board was, he says, “the moment it entered consciousness” that little stood between him and the chairman and chief executive spot at the company.What he couldn’t have known, however, was that the spectre of Persil Power, possibly the most high-profile consumer goods failure in memory, was lurking under his future desk as head of detergents.

Persil Power – “a unique product” – worked brilliantly at its job of getting stains out of clothes when they were washed according to the instructions on the box. When they weren’t, however, it had an unfortunate habit of causing them to disintegrate.

“It kept me awake at night for six months,” says FitzGerald of the period in the 1990s after Persil Power’s initial honeymoon ended. “Before this started, I’d had a fairly unblemished record.”

The nature of the business meant that the implosion was “big, very big, and very public”, leading FitzGerald, now widely seen as the next chief executive, to offer his resignation, but only after he had fixed the problem. He was told to stay on to do his job for the long term, so that the lessons learned in the £300 million mistake could be absorbed back into Unilever, rather than the expensive education being used at a competitor.

“At that point, I recognised, I was going to be CEO.”

The costly lessons were numerous, and as valuable, as his boss had said they would be. FitzGerald learned that a leader should not be concerned with popularity, but with making the right decisions and that they need to know what it is like to consume whatever it is they are providing.

On this latter front, he describes a Persil Power crisis meeting with 31 people, none of whom, he discovered, had actually used the product in their own washing machine.

“We were too driven by the scientific beauty of it,” he says, outlining how the light-bulb moment in the meeting room led him to approach the business in a very particular way.

When he was chief financial officer at the company, the last stop before the chief executive’s office, he spent about 80 per cent of his time on the road, trying to understand business from the other side.

When taking a trip, he would arrive a day early in whichever country it happened to be that week and spend the morning walking around shops to see how Unilever’s products and others were displayed. In the afternoon, he would do his bathroom and kitchen investigations and, that evening, he would meet six or eight people who had joined the local Unilever operation within the previous six months.

By the time the business of the trip started, he was up to speed, on his own terms.

“Part of the problem is that lots of people like to tell you what you want to hear,” says FitzGerald, who reckons he learned some of his most important business lessons from his mother Doreen, a journalist turned housewife.

“She used to push me very hard on being a generous listener,” he says, adding that she was also firm on remembering that everybody in the group you’re leading is “the best at something”.

FitzGerald’s father was a customs officer who was based in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim 69 years ago, leading to baby Niall, 12 years younger than his next sibling, being born in Sligo.

The family subsequently moved to Limerick, where FitzGerald accepts the age gap saw him take on an only child role, a status that he accepts may have helped to develop his leadership skills as he engineered company through the establishment of a boys’ club and a football team.

He describes himself as “strongly Irish” and is pleased with the fact that all of his children carry and travel on Irish passports. He does not own property here – “it’s more of a burden” – but visits frequently, for his role as chairman of the commercial board of Munster Rugby as much as for UCD, and cares deeply about the prosperity or otherwise of the State.

It was this that led him, in late 2008, to deliver a “very hard-hitting” speech to a group of business leaders at a Business & Finance event, where he slammed the culture in the economy at the time and warned of imminent catastrophe. It was a bit of a lead balloon at the otherwise festive affair, but FitzGerald is unrepentant.

‘Wrong and reckless’

Bank of Ireland

Put simply, he believes in the dangers of the Golden Circle, and wonders why those dangers have not been recognised more fully. “I’m not sure all the lessons have been learned here,” he says of the economy of today. “I think it’s really, really important that nobody has been put in jail.”

Things were done that were “absolutely wrong and reckless”, but consequences have not been felt, in his view. He is also concerned about the Government not taking account of the geographical imbalances he sees, through his travels around the State, in the economic recovery.

The criticism may itself be criticised by those pointing to FitzGerald’s England-based life and relative lack of recent experience of business and finance here.

It could also be viewed as a sign of authenticity however, an authenticity that he tries to maintain in light of what he would describe as a number of “searing” experiences in his life.

His relationship with Madiba would be a happy one, but lasting and painful sadness is rooted in other moments, with the loss of an infant daughter, his first child, still more than raw all these decades on.

Also strongly present in his mind is a conversation with a dear friend just before that friend’s death, where FitzGerald was urged to be true to himself. This led him to accept that his first marriage had ended, a fact he says he had been denying for some time before that.

“People have lost touch with you because you’re not authentic,” was the friend’s message, and it is one FitzGerald has been determined to remember. CV Niall FitzGerald Age: 69

Position: Chairman of many bodies, including the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.

Family: Married to Ingrid; they have one daughter, Gabriella (almost 14) together. He also has three grown children, Tara, Colin and Aaron, and one grandson, Felix, with another grandchild on the way.

Something you might expect: As a big rugby fan and a Limerick man, he chairs the Munster Rugby Commercial Board.

Something that might surprise: He also finds the time to chair the board of governors at his local primary school.