Sir Roland Smith CEO Lecture 2017: Antony Burgmans

12 October 2017

‘We live in mad times’ was a statement both challenged and reinforced by Antony Burgmans at this year’s Professor Sir Roland Smith CEO Lecture, ‘Leadership in Turbulent Times’. 

The event, which took place on 4 October at One Birdcage Walk in London, was hosted by Lancaster University’s Vice Chancellor Professor Mark E. Smith. He welcomed an audience of alumni, supporters and guests before introducing the Dean of Lancaster University Management School, Professor Angus Laing and Antony Burgmans, an alumnus and long-time supporter of the Management School.

During his presentation Antony explained that the ‘turbulent times’ in which we live depend on the perspective of the individual. Globalisation has created a better standard of living for many, but has left others behind, generating a significant trust gap between leaders and large sections of society. The conflicting demands of local and global forces and the loss of trust in both corporate and political leaders has resulted in outcomes which would have seemed improbable just a few years ago – the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote cited as just two of many other examples.

Whilst Antony stated that these changes and disruptions are set to continue - we can expect less stability in the next 20 years than has been seen in the previous 50 - he had some advice for today’s leaders: Through advocating an acute sensitivity to external forces, both locally and globally, and a greater emphasis on integrity leaders across organisations and corporations should act for the good of society, not just the bottom line.

Antony’s presentation concluded with an extended and wide-ranging question and answer session with audience members, and ended with a strong message for current and future leaders: ‘Stay close to your principles throughout your career’.

Continuing this message to future leaders, Antony kindly took the time to reflect on his career in greater detail when he spoke to Lancaster University Management School.

Who wants to be the head of Unilever?

Many young business graduates love the idea, but the man who actually held the post - working at the consumer goods giant for 35 years - believes they need to think carefully about what their ambitions should be.

“I’ve talked to hundreds, maybe thousands, of young people about their careers. Often they’d say - well, of course, I’d like your job,” says Antony Burgmans. “But would they? Business is not all about becoming the CEO. If it doesn’t suit you and your personality it can be a pretty horrible job.

“It’s important not to believe too much in the power that’s involved. The trappings and paraphernalia that go with the title are all relative - it all goes away when you leave the post. ‘Antony Burgmans' wasn’t invited to prestigious events, the CEO of Unilever was. You need to keep that in mind.

“I enjoyed the roles on the board and as Chairman, but not everyone would. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, whatever it might be, do something else.”

It was this motivation to follow what he enjoyed rather than hard ambition, that attracted Burgmans to take an MA in Marketing at Lancaster - what was still a novel kind of discipline in 1971.

“I’d done undergraduate work at a university in the Netherlands and in Sweden, mostly around business administration, but I had a particular interest in marketing. The creative side always had its appeal to me. Marketing was up and coming in those days, and Lancaster was one of the very few business schools in the world that offered a full postgraduate programme in marketing.

“It was such an enjoyable year in my life. I’d come to a small rural institution where there was a good ratio between staff and students, so plenty of time to get to know people properly. They were serious academics but were also happy to socialise with us - we could walk in and have a chat and see them over weekends. Even in those days the atmosphere was an international one. Around 60% were British, the rest from overseas, and that added to the opportunities for sharing ideas and experiences. It was great fun.”

Burgmans joined Unilever in 1972 as a marketing assistant. By 1991 he’d joined the Board and was made Executive Chairman of Unilever NV and Deputy Chairman of Unilever PLC in 1999. He became Unilever’s first non-executive Chairman of both parent companies in 2005. The importance of sophisticated approaches to marketing and sales to the success of the organisation kept opening doors throughout his career.

“FMCG was very fashionable in the 1970s. Since then it’s been finance and banking, the tech companies like Google, and the fashion will keep on changing. By focusing on marketing as a discipline at a high level at Lancaster it meant I was able to hit the ground running. A fairly new and unfamiliar topic like market research wasn’t new to me and I could show them immediately what I was able to do.”

Burgmans spent four years solely in marketing before being moved into sales and posts in Indonesia.

“That was the Unilever style: to make sure you were well-trained from early on, had a range of experiences and challenges from different disciplines, geographies and responsibilities.”

He points to the importance for business graduates of being aware of the different stages of a ‘good’ career.

“So it started out with thinking about what Unilever could do for me. Then after 10 years or so, they start to ask what you can do for them, and there’s the chance to progress and take on more responsibility. The third phase is also important, what can I do - or myself with the organisation - for wider society.

“You need to keep in mind that if you want to progress and have a rewarding career it’s not just about you - don’t get stuck on the ‘me’, my career, my remuneration - or you’ll end up with a career that’s not satisfying, that might crash.”

Burgmans’ work with Unilever on efforts to prevent overfishing and support for water sanitation schemes led to his being named the United Nations Humanitarian of the Year in 2007 and Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) in 2008.

“If companies don’t act in terms of the benefit of the whole of society, they won’t be able to survive. Governments are limited in what they can do and businesses need to take a level of responsibility. The key is to be realistic, not over-promise, and look at how they can contribute to a solution.”

Despite retiring in 2007, Burgmans has continued to take on a stream of high-profile and pressurised senior posts in business as well as the arts. He’s been a non-executive director of BP PLC; co-chairman of the Global Commerce Initiative;  a member of boards of Jumbo Supermarkten BV, Allianz AG, Akzo Nobel NV, the Dutch National Opera, Mauritshuis Museum and Worldwide Fund for Nature in the Netherlands.

Is there something addictive about leadership and being involved with top-level decision-making?

“No - I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I’m not addicted to power in any way. It’s always been important to me to keep space for a private life and for my family, for getting away to go fly-fishing. And Lancaster for me was like that - I look back very favourably on that time, great education and I enjoyed my time tremendously.”