Consumer goods giant Unilever last night looked to be on the brink of ditching its British head office and moving to the Netherlands.
The company behind Marmite, Dove and Hellmann’s mayonnaise has joint head offices in London and Rotterdam and was so shaken by a hostile takeover bid last year that it is believed to be seeking a safer haven.
The £115billion attack by Kraft Heinz prompted Unilever’s Dutch boss Paul Polman to vow to do everything possible to protect the conglomerate falling into the hands of foreign vultures.
And it is thought that he, and the board of Unilever, now believe moving the head office to the Netherlands is its best defence.
To let? Unilever House in London. The firm has joint head offices in London and Rotterdam and was so shaken by a hostile takeover bid last year that it is believed to be seeking a safer haven
Chief executive Polman has warned ministers that current rules do not give companies fair protection from hostile bids, saying last year: ‘When you have a situation like this, with a national champion, there should be a level playing field.’
Union chiefs and MPs said the Government was to blame because of its ‘lax’ approach to foreign takeovers.
Ministers have been frantically lobbying Unilever to remain in the UK but tougher takeover rules in the Netherlands are thought to have been a key factor in deliberations.
Choosing Rotterdam for a merged headquarters would see Unilever stop calling Britain home for the first time in its 133-year history.
And the decision will be viewed as a dent to Brexit negotiations, with the UK trying to position itself as a global centre for business.
It is not known yet whether the change of base would mean Unilever quitting its historic headquarters at Victoria Embankment on the Thames. It is thought the firm is reluctant to do this.
The firm has two annual meetings every year – one in each country – and two stock market listings of joint importance.
But a move could see it booted out of the FTSE 100, with only a secondary share listing now held in London.
Rhys McCarthy, the national officer for Unilever at the union Unite, said the firm’s departure would be ‘a huge shame’.
He said: ‘This is a great British company that provides good, skilled British jobs.
‘But clearly Unilever was badly shaken by the hostile takeover attempt and there is a wider issue here that the Government is missing.
If you look at other countries – the French, the Germans, and in this case the Dutch – they take an approach that is much more focused on the long-term consequences of these deals.
‘If something isn’t done then we are going to see more and more decisions like this. If this doesn’t shake the Government into doing something then I don’t know what will.’
Unilever has been lobbied by officials in the UK and the Netherlands, with Dutch premier Mark Rutte, who once worked at Unilever, rolling out the red carpet. His government has passed tax breaks on dividends and has vowed to slash corporation tax.
Takeover rules in the Netherlands are thought to be attractive to Unilever as well.
Unlike British rules, they require companies to consider the impact of deals on a wider range of stakeholders than just shareholders.
Labour MP John Mann, a member of the Treasury Committee, called on the Government to strengthen protections for firms.
He added: ‘We need to use Brexit to protect British industries, not open them up to even more foreign takeovers.’
Unilever has refused to comment on whether a relocation would result in any job losses.