Ben & Jerry's owner picks Netherlands for HQ in snub to London

Unilever: Our brands are bought 2 billion times a day
Unilever: Our brands are bought 2 billion times a day

Unilever has chosen the Dutch city of Rotterdam as the location of its corporate headquarters, ending nearly a century of residency in London.

The United Kingdom's third largest company said in a statement Thursday that it would use Rotterdam as its sole legal home amid a broader shake up of its corporate structure.

Unilever (UL) shares will continue to be listed in London, Amsterdam and New York. The global consumer goods company said that its 10,000 employees in the Netherlands and the UK would not be affected.

The move by Unilever, which owns brands including Dove, Lipton and Ben & Jerry's, is a blow to the UK as it prepares for life outside the European Union. By choosing to incorporate in the Netherlands, the company will remain based in the EU after Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.

Prime Minister Theresa May has sought to reassure businesses that Britain will remain an attractive place to invest following its divorce from the EU. But many companies based in Britain are making plans to protect their future access to EU markets given the risk that Brexit will result in new barriers to trade in goods and services.

"The optics for [the British government] are not great," said Ken Odeluga, a market analyst at City Index. "It's difficult to pretend political filters were entirely absent from management's thought process."

Unilever, which has operated for decades with dual headquarters in London and Rotterdam, did not cite Brexit as a motivating factor. It said it hopes that consolidating in the Dutch city will simplify its structure, give it more flexibility to buy or sell brands, and help drive its long-term performance.

Unilever has global sales of roughly €54 billion ($67 billion), 5.5% of which come from the UK, according to Factset.

unilever house
Unilever House occupies prime real estate on the north bank of the Thames in central London.

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May's government put a brave face on the loss of one of Britain's biggest companies.

"As the company itself has made clear, its decision to transfer a small number of jobs to a corporate HQ in the Netherlands is part of a long-term restructuring plan of the company and is not connected to the UK's departure from the EU," the UK government said in a statement.

Unilever has nearly 170,000 employees around the world.

The company said it would review its structure last year after brushing off a takeover attempt from Kraft Heinz (KHC). Analysts said that Dutch laws make it easier for companies to fend off hostile takeover attempts.

Bart Le Blanc, a partner at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright in Amsterdam, said the move also makes sense for corporate governance and tax reasons.

"The investment and regulatory environment in the Netherlands is highly attractive for such multinational enterprises and the Dutch government has made great strides in creating a level playing field for taxes," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used the wrong currency for Unilever's revenues.

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