Ref: IMD-7-2171

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Reference: IMD-7-2171

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Unilever International 3.0: Scaling the white spaces venturing effort

Benoit F. Leleux

By Professor Benoit F. LeleuxBenoit F. Leleux and Pallivathukkal Cherian Abraham

By 2020, Umesh Shah could rightly be proud of what he and his team had accomplished over the last eight years to capture white space consumers, i.e. those consumers that Unilever operating units had progressively labelled non-core or new groups created by emerging megatrends, such as globalization and digitalization.

Unilever International (UI) was created with the mandate to create the capabilities to reach out to these consumers and (re)capture them for the Group. It quickly proved its case when it doubled the turnover it had inherited in less than four years. In a second phase, it doubled it again, reaching a turnover of €1 billion in 2019, ahead of plans. UI’s strong performance was acknowledged within Unilever when it won the prestigious Unilever Global Compass Award in 2019. UI was now preparing to embark on the next phase of its journey, labelled UI 3.0, with the goal of again doubling its turnover to €2 billion.

Three areas were singled out for attention: (1) making a strong business case for the market potential; (2) building the capabilities to scale by investing further in digital marketing and the partner network; and (3) maintaining and even enhancing the unit’s entrepreneurial culture, ensuring motivation and proper compensation for its intrapreneurs.

Getting to €1 billion in sales had not been easy but doubling it again would increase UI’s complexity by an order of magnitude. How could UI keep pace and remain entrepreneurial while at the same time maintaining its strong governance and control systems?

Maintaining double digit annual growth would require focusing on ever-larger opportunities and their inherent complexities, and placing larger bets, some of which would definitely fail. Was UI ready to cope with larger failures? And what about the Unilever mothership? It relished the unit’s success, but would it still be there in difficult times? Umesh knew that UI’s past achievements only earned it additional runway; he and his colleagues could not be complacent about the journey ahead.

New opportunities meant new and larger problems, so new solutions had to be engineered to keep delivering above expectations. Navigating these new and possibly rougher seas would require better speedboats...

Learning Objective

  1. Scaling up a white spaces corporate venturing efforts
  2. Organizational structures supporting venturing
  3. Managing internal entrepreneurs
  4. Incentives
  5. Managing corporate politics
  6. Developing venturing processes
  7. Recruiting and retaining intrapreneurial talent
Settings Asia, Global, Singapore
Unilever, Consumer Goods
Type Field Research
Copyright ©IMD 2020
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Reference: IMD-7-2171

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