Change batters every company like a hurricane these days, nothing is tied down fast, no-one is secure. And, however much you inform yourself in advance and prepare, often it takes the most mundane occurrence to bring it home to you. For Niall FitzGerald, the 54-year-old chairman of Unilever plc, it happened in Crazy Eddie's in New York a few months back.
'I was helping my son move into his new flat,' he says, pacing his fifth-floor office in the Unilever building on London's Embankment, 'and I was looking at hi-fis in Crazy Eddie's, one of those stores that promises the lowest prices for everything. And there's this chap in front of me who wants to buy a CD player, and he says, the price is dollars 289, right? And the guy behind the counter says, yeah, cheapest price there is. And the man in front gets out a new Palm Seven, direct access to the net, punches a few buttons, and says, Nope, place in LA is selling it for dollars 219 ...'
FitzGerald stops pacing and stares out of the windows that run down one wall of the room. Beyond, on the other side of Blackfriars Bridge, the new Tate Modern gallery, converted out of a grimy brick power station, is close to completion. 'I stood there,' he says, 'and I realised I had just seen something that is hugely important.'
Instant price comparison. Immediate knowledge. Infinite reach. But what, for the boss of one of the world's biggest consumer goods companies, does it all mean? That is the dollars 219 question ...
The last time I met FitzGerald, in the autumn of 1997, he had been one year in the job at the top of Unilever and already made his mark. The speciality chemicals division had been sold, the money banked, more focus was promised, better value targeted, change instigated. Analysts were happy. FitzGerald, a trim, loquacious, hard-driven Irishman, was the first non-Brit to head the London side of Unilever (which, as a joint Anglo-Dutch company, also has a head office and another chairman in Rotterdam), and probably the best communicator the firm had had in years.
He was also an iconoclast, a protege of Unilever's old finance director Cob Stenham, and a man who liked to lay out his stall quickly. He wanted change and was prepared to take a risk, not a word previously in the vocabulary of Unilever's top brass. He also didn't mind being noticed, campaigning for the euro, tub-thumping round the Continent, something that made noses wrinkle among older Unilever staff.
My abiding memory of researching the company then was of one old hand telling me that the ambitious FitzGerald showed a worrying tendency towards 'self-aggrandisement' - too much dabbling in politics, photos in the Wall Street Journal and Le Temps and no mention of Morris Tabakslat, his co-chairman. The Dutch, he added, wouldn't like it. But, with so much change sweeping round the world (globalisation, technical innovation, huge shifts in working patterns), FitzGerald carried all before him.
Three years later he bears a few more lines on his face, has a new Dutch co-chairman to work with, and is as resolutely in control as ever. But events have moved on. In particular, FitzGerald's vision of change seems to have been overwhelmed by the flood elsewhere. Last year, Unilever's stock market value halved, not because it was doing badly - it wasn't - but because the smart money was going elsewhere, into technology stocks, knowledge economy businesses and the like. Poor old Unilever, 70 years old, with 1,600 brands and a pounds 27 billion turnover, a company that bestrides the world with its soaps and ice creams and personal care products, just seemed a bit dull. Or worse, maybe a bit out of date.
For FitzGerald, an accountant by background but a salesman by instinct and self-confessed change addict, it was a signal that the company had to move even faster. He has made the point by resigning his non-executive directorship at the Bank of Ireland and joining the boards of multinationals Merck and Ericsson. He needs to know about pharmaceuticals, he says, because the new world will have neutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals. He needs to be at the cutting edge of communications, as technology threatens to overthrow old consumer purchasing patterns. Unilever needs to keep changing to keep up. Nothing is ruled out for the company: a move into services, venture capital start-ups, entrepreneurial spin-offs where managers get their own stakes. But will it be enough?
So, a tough company to run these days. When I walk in on a wet Monday morning, FitzGerald is already in something of a grump. He had, he told me later, lost his temper the day before over something he'd read in the final draft for Unilever's annual review. Maybe he's still sore from sorting that out. Whatever, his welcome isn't exactly effusive. 'Why do you want to talk to me again?' he says, narrowing those distinctive lacertilian eyes.
He looks like he'd rather swan-dive into the Thames than explain himself to a journalist. I could have told him that his head of corporate communications thought it was a good opportunity for him to address his 'internal' market - stand by your desks, Unilever managers - but I thought I had better not. The garrulous charm of the 1997 FitzGerald was on temporary shore leave.
But then FitzGerald hasn't had a particularly easy ride from the press of late. Part of the problem was that between 1997 and 1999 he never found anything to spend his speciality chemicals cash on. He had his war-chest, he had promised acquisitions but, when push came to shove, everything looked a bit expensive. So he started paying the cash back to shareholders, as he had promised, but no-one showed any gratitude. A bit of a failure?
'No,' he says, 'a success. We lived up to what we said we would do. There was a sense of 'can't you think of anything more creative?' My answer is: 'We can think of lots of things, but do they deliver value to shareholders?' We have to be convinced acquisitions can create real value, not just good headlines for the chief executive.' (Last month's Ben & Jerry's and SlimFast deals fitted the bill.)
He has a point. FitzGerald and his co-chairman Antony Burgmans have moved on to what he describes as 'the next step' in their drive to improve profitability and cash-flow: concentrating resources on 400 key brands. FitzGerald announced the move last September. The response? As the Economist drily put it: 'Unilever's share price, already falling, fell faster.' FitzGerald, not a man to give up without a struggle, simply shouted louder.
This February, as it unveiled flat sales for 1999, Unilever reiterated its 400 brands strategy, detailing a series of 'linked initiatives' to align the 'entire organisation' behind the growth ambitions - including lots of e-business - and promising to increase annual top-line growth to 5% and operating margins to 15%. Newspapers highlighted the likely job cuts. The City yawned. The shares bobbed up 4p. A week later, they were down again. It was as if everyone was much more interested in what was going on elsewhere - probably those places that end in dot.com.
FitzGerald likes a challenge, you would guess. Born in Sligo, raised in Limerick, the son of a customs officer, he is used to being seen as outside the norm in a conventional company like Unilever. He joined only by accident, attending an interview for one of the company's Irish subsidiaries with a friend, but his mix of sharp ambition, exuberant numeracy and articulate charm has marked him out in a 32-year career during which he has moved from finance to running Unilever's South African operation and holding down senior foods and detergents posts. He also survived involvement in the Persil Power affair, in which the company had to ditch a new brand after a bitter battle with Procter & Gamble over its alleged clothes-shredding properties. He was expected to resign. He didn't and ended up as the pounds 1 million-a-year boss of the lot. 'Niall's a winner,' grins one friend, 'nobody needs to win more than him.'
Now he faces his toughest challenge: not just crowded markets and falling prices but, worst of all, investor apathy. Some colleagues wonder whether, because of his character mix - the directness, the exuberance, the love of risk - he is the right man at the helm in these turbulent times. Others contend that the last thing Unilever needs now is a plodding diplomat.
The key, it seems, is that FitzGerald does things his way or he doesn't do them at all. He is used to organising, he says, because he was 'an afterthought' in the FitzGerald family, 10 years younger than his brother and sister, and so grew up having to sort out his own social life. He is disciplined, he adds, because it was beaten into him at the tough Catholic seminary where he went to school. Most importantly, he was taught by his mother, who worked as a journalist and whom he adored, that you should always avoid doing things you don't want to do. 'She said it more times than I can remember,' he says. 'Never ever end up doing something you don't like, because you will do it badly.'
This combination determines FitzGerald's restless style. He runs (sometimes into work from his home in Chelsea), he collects paintings on his travels and freely admits he is never happy if he has to sit in the office more than 72 hours. That's why he loves heading Unilever, jetting around, tackling the many problems that assail such a multinational. He is also, say friends, never satisfied.
How does he cope with the vastness of Unilever, 270,000 employees in 50 countries? Probably by asserting rigorous, rational order - you can tell by the way he talks in numbered lists that he thinks numerically - and by developing a tough carapace: you don't push as much change as he has through the Unilever system if you are worried about what others think.
What does nark, I would guess, is just being ignored. When I ask him how he feels about the new generation of young entrepreneurs pushing e-businesses onto the market, he says - after pointing out that about eight in 10 will fail - that, yes, he would love to drop what he's doing and have a go himself. 'But,' he adds, gesturing around him, 'when I have those thoughts I get on my bike and get energised about what's going on in these businesses.'
Yet he knows that part of the reason the City has been unimpressed with Unilever is because of its image. The company may have all sorts of whizz-bang initiatives but it is still in danger of being seen as a dinosaur - too big, too old. That colours everything. Take its internet ventures. FitzGerald sighs: 'We've been in e-business for three to four years but we just don't shout about it.'
Yes, it already has link-ups with AOL, Excite and others, says FitzGerald, and is constantly examining opportunities, but there is a limit to how much benefit the internet will bring Unilever. Massive savings in organisation and procurement, for sure, but in terms of delivering consumers? The jury's out, he says. It's in the area of business-to-business where real progress is being made.
Others suggest that Unilever has been slow and that FitzGerald knows it, especially as he was one of the first to advocate change. Hence his mood swings: he is, says one, frustrated at what he has come up against inside Unilever. But shifting established patterns of thinking in big successful firms is very tough. Too much conservatism. Too much self-interest.
Dealing with the Dutch, too, who by nature are less likely to leap into the unknown with an open wallet, may have proved knotty. That's where the seeds of his irritation lie. 'Niall didn't wake up late,' says one former colleague. 'He knew better than anyone what was coming.'
But the swirl of change is bigger than just e-business. In response, FitzGerald and Burgmans, like skippers on the bridge of a massive oil tanker, now seem to be trying to shift the ship to run with the storm.
The shrink-to-grow policy, concentrating on Unilever's top 400 brands and letting others fall away, is one arm of the strategy. But something even more significant may be developing: a move away from selling products to delivering services.
Unilever is not a manufacturer anyway, says FitzGerald, when I take this up with him. It's a 'brand marketer' and there is no reason why it cannot push some of those brands over to the service sector. Can it really work? Of course, says FitzGerald looking animated: 'If you don't go forwards, you go backwards.' Or sink.
Take Unilever's curious experiments in south-west London. FitzGerald has given the go-ahead for Lever managers to buy a laundry (in Fulham) and a home-cleaning business. Why? Because he wants to look at Unilever brands from other angles. It markets detergents to wash clothes, but the end product that everyone is looking for is a clean shirt. Why not start at the end and consider whether there are better ways of getting there? And one of the key trends for the future that Unilever has identified is the growth in demand for products and services that save time, and he wants to get that into the 'bloodstream' of the business.
'The one thing people cannot buy is time, so they are prepared to pay a premium to those who unlock their time, not just for products or services, but solutions to what it is they are doing.'
Hence the Persil laundry service and the Jif home cleaning business, now rolled into a new subsidiary called 'my home'. Just an experiment, he points out. 'We've put new people together with some of our own people and told them: 'Your task is to work through how this service industry can be organised in a more profitable way, how it can be branded and how we can deliver a service clearly differentiated from what exists.''
It seems pretty extraordinary, and the sort of move into a highly competitive sector that might make some investors rather nervous. 'Well,' he says, 'if that is the way consumers are going, you would expect us to be ahead of that.'
And there is more. Schemes like this are being organised half-in, half-outside the Unilever umbrella, with the group that manages it being given equity in the business. A similar experiment, this time involving products in the aromatherapeutic area, is being conducted in Holland. 'They have the freedom of a start-up and access, if they want it, to the scale and knowledge of Unilever.'
One of the reasons Unilever is doing this, FitzGerald acknowledges, is because of the fight it now faces to keep talented young managers. When I ask if many might become disenchanted, especially those working on brands that haven't made Unilever's top 400, FitzGerald dismisses the suggestion. The best managers will end up on the best brands, he says, nothing new in that. No, the problem is that young people don't necessarily find big company careers that attractive any more. They look at the new e-businesses starting up and they want freedom, and they want equity, now.
So, FitzGerald's next step will be to spin off Unilever's own venture capital arm, run partly by insiders, partly by outsiders with experience in the area. All the start-ups will be put under this umbrella. 'The way in which we are trained, we might not be able to let the real winners run faster and cut the ones that are losers. This way it is more focused.' He sees three possible outcomes for each venture. Some won't work. Some will be scaled up and brought back into the mainstream, others will work but won't be 'Unilever businesses', so they will be floated off.
But won't that fragment Unilever's management focus, with young executives endlessly looking for ways to tunnel out? Possibly, but the ideas will be strictly vetted, and have to be relevant 'to where Unilever is going'. And it is not just the young he is worrying about. He's also looking again at the senior structure at Unilever, which was reorganised only four years ago. He has appointed a board director to examine everything - the job he was given before he took up the role of chairman. He wants greater freedom and flexibility in order to grow fast, he says.
Sometimes you feel FitzGerald would just like to pick the whole thing up by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake. But why stop at querying senior management structure? I can think of three obvious questions you can spin off that. Why have two chairmen? Why have an Anglo-Dutch link-up? Why put cosmetics and cleaning products and food together in one multinational? Perhaps Unilever itself is just not relevant in the 21st century ...
Funnily enough, he says, these are questions he gets asked all the time by his own managers when he does his whirlwind tours of Unilever subsidiaries explaining strategy. And he asks himself the same questions. 'I don't wake up at four in the morning worrying about it, but I do think about it, yes. If I'm not constantly questioning it then I will not anticipate what we need to do in future.'
And to answer my question, yes, he says, it is relevant, perhaps more so now than a few years ago as the savings that technology brings will be huge - a whole new set of economies of scale. Another who knows him well suggests that if he could increase value by breaking Unilever in two or three, he would do it, instantly.
But what about the future of branded goods, the future of retail, the furious pace of change? And we haven't even mentioned European integration ... FitzGerald, by now, has warmed up. Just going to postpone a meeting, he says, jumping up to race out. Then he's back, wanting to show me some new pictures he has bought in Ghana, big canvases propped against the wall. Brilliant, eh?
In another corner he has some prints of Limerick and Dublin. Does he feel more or less Irish the longer he lives away? More Irish, he grins. He still catches every Irish rugby international. Will he ever move back? He shrugs. He says he spends more time in America now - unusually for a Unilever plc boss as that side of the pond is normally handled by the Dutch chairman - 'because so much is happening there which is leading world business, I have to keep much more in touch with it'. Others think he has his eyes set on one last big corporate job there, but not until he has restored Unilever's share price and the last of his three kids is out of school.
And Europe? Well, how shall he put this? He is very disappointed in the Government's reluctance to commit to the euro. 'I understand the domestic political difficulty, I really do, but I don't think you solve it by pretending it isn't there. In the end there comes a point where leaders must lead and not follow, and I think there is a danger that, by not confronting the issue, it will be lost.'
But then FitzGerald chairs the CBI's Europe committee and that organisation hasn't done much better, has it? He looks sheepish. 'Well, the CBI is a representative body and it represents a wide range of views. I think industry has done as much as it can, but it is not our job to take the lead. The politicians just want to ride in behind ...'
He shrugs. Our time is more than up. He slings on a jacket and makes for the door. Along the thickly carpeted corridors with their expensive contemporary art and their gorgeously restored deco fittings, all is calm - no sign of the storm outside. FitzGerald strides off to the photographer, always keeping a few paces ahead.
FITZGERALD IN A MINUTE
1945: Born 13 September, Sligo, Ireland. Educated St Munchins college, Limerick; University College, Dublin
1968: Accountant, Paul & Vincent, Unilever Ireland
1974: Personal assistant to financial director, Unilever
1976: Overseas commercial officer, Unilever
1980: Financial director, Unilever South Africa
1982: MD, Van den Bergh & Jurgens, South Africa 1985 Group treasurer, Unilever; later financial director
1989: Edible fats and dairy co-ordinator, and member of the foods executive, Unilever
1991: Group detergent co-ordinator, Unilever
1994: Vice-chairman, Unilever plc, subsequently chairman.