By - Richard I. Kirkland Jr.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Like the Pushmi-pullyu children's book character, whose two heads face in opposite directions, Unilever appears a corporate creature particularly ill- suited to getting anywhere in a hurry. Not so. In recent years the $25- billion-a-year Anglo-Dutch behemoth, which boasts two chairmen, two headquarters, and two sets of shareholders, has shed more than 50 marginal or money-losing operations, significantly strengthened its ailing U.S. subsidiary, and nearly doubled earnings. Floris Maljers, 54, chairman of Unilever's Dutch half, joined as a trainee after earning an economics degree at Amsterdam University. He spent most of his career in the edible-fats division (margarine to you and me) and never misses a chance to note that food accounts for more than half of Unilever's profits. The British boss, Michael Angus, 57, is a graduate in mathematics from Bristol University. He worked for most of his career in the company's toiletries businesses (soaps and toothpaste) in France and Britain. In 1979 he moved to New York, where he spent four years cleaning house at the Lever Brothers subsidiary. To unwind, Maljers, who has two sons and lives with his wife, Hanneke, in The Hague area, rows every weekend with an eight-man crew. Angus, who has three children, spends weekends on his farm in the Cotswolds countryside where he and wife Isabel grew up. Recently they have begun marketing the cheese made from their herd of goats.

Angus and Maljers come to decisions in what Angus calls a sitting together. He says: ''The danger is that such a system can slow down decision-making. But because we're so aware of the potential problem, it hasn't been one.'' The company's nimbleness was impressively displayed last December when Unilever, acting as a white knight, fought off American Brands in a bruising battle for Chesebrough-Pond's, completing the $3.1-billion takeover just under the wire of a year-end change in U.S. tax laws.