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Alan Jope Unilever CEO

Running Unilever from his study: CEO Alan Jope

On March 13, Unilever CEO Alan Jope, boss of the consumer-goods conglomerate that makes everything from Dove soap to Knorr soup, ordered the firm’s 60,000 office workers in all countries bar China to work from home.

The 56-year-old Scot took a train to Edinburgh where he joined his family. Sitting in his study, he recently spoke to The Economist’s Schumpeter columnist via an online video-chat that he uses to run a business empire.

In a world gone awry, it all felt rather normal. Mr Jope, in his habitual casual garb, looked relaxed. Despite the gravity of the covid-19 pandemic, remote working is “dead easy”, he says; without commuting, he has more time to liaise with underlings around the world.

That is good news, and not just for Unilever. Since January the company has been on the front line of the covid-19 outbreak. As one of the world’s biggest consumer-goods firms, it sells food, hygiene products and other more or less essential staples to 2.5bn customers in 190 countries. Without continued availability of its wares the pandemic’s toll would almost certainly be even greater.

Pandemic trashes business rules

Listening to Mr Jope it becomes clear how many rules of business the pandemic has shattered. The impact on production, consumption and generation of profit is even greater than on office work.

The nature of the top job, which he has held since January 2019, has changed, too. In the past the hallmark of a good boss was a strategic mind. The covid era is all about the here and now.

Like many a boss, Mr Jope thinks in categories. For his firm, the pandemic has come in three waves. It began with the lockdown in China. The stoppages then spread to northern Italy, the rest of Europe and America. Now they have reached poor places such as the Philippines, India and Africa.

He has four guiding principles: look after people; look after supply; look after demand; look after cash.

First, people. Unilever is trying to safeguard the physical and financial well-being of its 155,000-strong workforce. Besides sending office staff home, factories are operating in “Fort Knox mode” to prevent the spread of infection, he says.

Sales teams are ordered to contact customers virtually. Unilever will maintain pay levels for up to three months for all who work for it either directly or, like cleaning and catering staff, through contractors….

The Economist: Read the full article here

Note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, its daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For more coverage, see its coronavirus hub here.

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