English grocer's son builds world empire on a piece of Sunlight soap


"My happiness in life is in my business," he once said. 'I can foresee a complete and absolute end for myself, but not for my company. There one has room to breathe, to grow, to develop, and the possibilities are limitless.

One can go to countries like Congo, and organize and organize again, and achieve very great things. But I'm not in business for the money alone. I don't like money as such, and I never have. I am in business because to me business means life itself.

They enable me to do something.'

When the English grocer's son William Lever died in 1925, he had distributed Sunlight soap, his favorite product, all over the world, bought some 160 larger companies in a kind of 'economic frenzy' and owned his own fleet for the transport of raw materials.

Unilever, the multinational that arose shortly after his death from a merger with the Dutch Margarine Union, has a turnover of 52 billion euros (2001), owns 1600 brands and employs approximately 265,000 people in 90 countries.

William Hesketh Lever was born in 1851 in Bolton-Le-Moor, between Liverpool and Manchester. It had a reputation for being one of the dirtiest and poorest industrial towns in Britain.

His father had started a grocery business there in 1842 and had established himself as a wholesaler thirteen years later. In that wholesaler, 16-year-old William was employed as an apprentice.

He did not excel at school, but he had a wide range of interests and read a lot. Around that time he got his hands on the book Self Help by Samuel Smiles, which he regarded as the foundation of his success throughout his life. It gave advice on how to perform on a business level.

Many years later he presented the promising youngsters as a present.

De Levers did well in soap, preserved meat, mustard, starch and dairy products. Most articles were bought in large batches: the young Liver had to develop taste and smell to judge the wares.

From 1870 he was able to travel as a salesman and two years later his father took him into the business for a high salary of 800 pounds. They deliberately tried to eliminate the middlemen and traveled to Brittany to look for butter.

Later they set up a complete network of buyers in Ireland.


In 1884 William came up with the idea of developing his own brand of soap without producing it himself.

He ordered the best product from each range from a series of soap manufacturers and had his brand name – which after some searching had become 'Sunlight' – stamped on it. So 'Sunlight' initially stood for all the soaps of the Levers.

He had one soap made from oils instead of animal fat and he called it Sunlight Self Washer: 'Because I wanted to indicate that it could do the laundry alone,' he said later.

He cut the soap bars of that time into small pieces and wrapped them in fake parchment. He noticed that the paper got dirty when the blocks were against the glass of a shop window and then put them in cardboard boxes.

For example, Lever very early and very consciously made his own brand product from an anonymous mass item.

With funds from the wholesale business and loans from relatives, William and his younger brother James Darcy rented a soap factory and began manufacturing their own 'Sunlight', which consisted of nearly 70% from a combination of coconut, palm kernel, and cottonseed oil.

The new soap caught on: from January 1886 they were producing 20 tons per week; in December 1887 that had become 450 tons. At the same time, they explored the butter stocks in the Netherlands and bought dairy products in Denmark.

Port Sunlight

The rented space became too small, so William started looking for land for a new factory. He found a vast swampy area on the banks of the Mersey and named it—how could it be otherwise—Port Sunlight. On March 3, 1888, Williams' wife put the first shovel in the ground.

He also conceived the plan to build a village for the workers next to the factory: 'Houses in which our workers can live comfortably, semi-detached with front and back gardens, where they learn more art of living than in a back street and where they discover that the life has more to offer than going back and forth to work and looking forward to the Saturday afternoon when you receive your wages.' At the end of 1888 he commissioned the design of a complex of twenty-eight houses.

In 1906 it was 134 hectares and next to the factory there was a village with 720 houses. The first year after the move, production had already increased fivefold. From then on, three thousand to five thousand tons were added every year.

Lever worked on the principle of 'small profit and very large turnover'.

He raised an army of traveling salesmen, ran billboard campaigns, advertised liberally in newspapers, held competitions and contests, gifted all teachers with a 'Sunlight Yearbook': he matched his American examples.

Even his first famous catchphrase 'Why does a woman look old earlier than a man?' (because she has to struggle with the laundry all day long) he bought from an American businessman.

The company grew so rapidly that in 1894 he had to resort to the capital market and founded a limited liability company. Until just before his death, however, he managed to maintain sole control even after building a world empire.


Lever had a dictatorial style of governance, tolerated no contradiction, refused to receive advice unless he had asked for it, and never learned the art of delegation, his associates say. His office in Port Sunlight was the symbol of it.

It was located in the center of the building, higher than the offices that surrounded it, and had glass walls. From here he could easily keep an eye on his employees.

He had almost all things in mind at once and led by verbal instructions. From the office on the bridge came an endless stream of orders, predictions, and admonitions.

Directors of branches abroad received letters in which his philosophy of business was explained in great detail.

At first, he discussed policy issues only with his brother James Darcy, who soon felt they had amassed enough money and couldn't understand why William rambled on. In 1897, James Darcy retired from business.

As beautiful as Port Sunlight was, however noble Lever's intentions, the structure showed feudal features. Lever in 1901: 'The employee's personal habits are none of the business of Lever Brothers as long as he is a good worker.

But a good worker may have a wife whose conduct is to be criticized, or his own conduct may be reprehensible, so that it is not desirable to have him in the village.

In such a case it is not a question of firing the worker, but he simply does not get a house in the village.' Workers had to have spiritual ambition: 'If only high wages, shorter working hours and good housing bring about job satisfaction, the worker is not a person, but a plant.'

Between the ages of 43 and 56 (from 1894 to 1904), William Lever was at the peak of his abilities.

Business historian Charles Wilson: 'So inexhaustible was his energy that he was able to lay the foundations for half a dozen companies abroad, expand the English cause, run as a Liberal candidate in three House of Commons elections, designed the village of Port Sunlight, bought the village of Thornton Hough and almost completely rebuilt, Thornton Manor enlarged and bought and renovated houses in London and Bolton.'

In the meantime he traveled like mad, visiting all countries that were eligible for settlement, especially on the European mainland and in America. In 1892 he made his first world tour: he visited the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Australia and Ceylon.

He spent the winter of 1895-1896 in South Africa, Tasmania, Australia and Ceylon.

From 1894 to 1898 he visited the United States every year. Between 1896 and 1898 he was in Switzerland seven times. Just to name a few examples. And he did business everywhere. A factory in Vorst, Belgium, dates from 1904.

For the opening ceremony, he had two thousand workers come over from Port Sunlight.

Liver was described in those years as follows: 'Because of his short and stocky build, with a sturdy body on short legs and a massive head with thick, shaggy hair, he radiated strength and energy.

He had piercing, blue-gray, witty eyes that could sparkle defiantly when he was angry. A strong mouth with thin lips and a slightly receding chin; the short neck and close-fitting ears of a boxer.

He was extremely strong, and had the gift of sleeping whenever he wanted. He almost always wore the same thing. A gray tweed suit, an old-fashioned collar with a tie he wore sloppily and man who stood out everywhere.'

"Why does a woman look older earlier than a man?" "Because she spends all day toiling with the laundry." Lever's first successful advertising slogan

Belgian Congo

A crisis arose in 1906, when the press plummeted its efforts to form a British soap trust. Just in those days, the American trusts were under heavy fire for all kinds of abuses. Lever, as the figurehead of the soap industry, was hit hard below the belt by the Daily Mail in particular.

But cowardice was about the last thing you could accuse the man of. Lever emerged victorious in a highly publicized trial against the powerful newspaper group.

The soap raw materials, all kinds of oils, became a big gray hat in those years. A white silk shirt and black shoes on the small, shapely feet. Well-groomed little hands.

An ever-awake facial expression that, however, used to be a little tense due to a slight deafness, which got worse over the years.

In 1911, Lever received large areas in the Congo from the Belgian government 'on loan' to buy palm kernel oil for his soap, which was more expensive. Lever attributed this mainly to the spectacular success of the Dutch margarine manufacturers that worked on the basis of the same raw materials.

He found opportunities to produce the palm kernel oil himself in the Belgian Congo. In 1911 he signed a convention with the Belgian government, supported by King Albert I, which granted him five huge areas for exploitation in the Congo.

Belgian politicians criticized the deal as an unjustifiable monopoly, philanthropists denounced it as a violation of the rights of the native population, but Lever went ahead.

On August 12, 1911, he shipped the first machines and on March 20, 1912, the first shipment of palm oil – transported by his own ships – reached the port of Antwerp. In April Lever presented King Albert with appropriate ceremonial an ivory box containing the first bar of the new soap.

Lever himself left for the heart of Africa in November 1912, accompanied by his wife and associates.

Funny enough, he also kept to his meticulous daily schedule on board the riverboat: 'Get up at 5am, shave, cup of tea at 5.15am, cold bath at 5.20am, breakfast 6.30am, lunch 12pm, tea at 4am. , dinner at 6.30 pm, to bed at 9 pm.

Writing letters and keeping a diary early in the morning.

Oils-Fats Meeting at 8.30am.' It wasn't until six months later that the company was back. 'Congo,' he would write in his diary, 'is a country where you can learn patience.' The Belgian Congo would become his great love next to Port Sunlight.


The enormous growth of his empire and the arrival of many new people made him lonely. As early as 1908 he wrote: 'I cannot approach someone from the new staff as easily as I could from the old…

I am more alone than ever in the Lever Brothers business.” He sent his son away in 1913 to explore the market in China and went to Australia himself to put things in order.

From 1915, during the First World War, he devoted himself to the production of margarine to compete with the Dutch. He enthusiastically introduced his Planters margarine into his various households.

He wrote: 'My servants in London are convinced that they will either be poisoned or degraded as human beings if they eat margarine.'

And at the end of 1916: 'Yesterday morning, before I left, I had to speak to all the staff in the dining room.

Several girls had told the housekeeper that they would rather leave than eat margarine, and it goes without saying that I cannot allow margarine not to be eaten.'

In 1917 he was ennobled as baron – in 1922 to viscount – henceforth he went through life as Sir William Leverhulme. Hulme was his wife's last name. He continued to buy up companies. Sometimes the reason for such a takeover was not clear to him either, he admitted.

By 1921 there were 158 and he controlled the entire soap industry in Britain except for one company.

When it was suggested to him to stop the wild expansion, he replied: 'If I lie under the green sod, the company still has time to rest on its laurels.' He was 70 at the time.

Shared power

Just around that time, Lever Brothers' profits plummeted. London's financial world doubted the old boss had his world affairs under control.

A financial audit revealed so much tampering that in 1921 Lord Leverhulme had to hand over the leadership to a special committee headed by financial expert D'Arcy Cooper. Lever was a member of this executive council, but no longer enjoyed absolute control.

The head office was moved from Port Sunlight to London. Thousands of workers were fired or retired early. What prompted Lever in 1923 to say: 'What has increased our efficiency so much since 1921?

Not a higher premium, but the fact that we have started to remove the unusable manpower. This made the remaining people fear that it would be their turn too, and I believe that is the reason for the increased efficiency they have achieved today.'

Despite protests from his son and close associates, he wanted to return to Congo in 1924, aged 73: 'Even though the way there was blocked with machine guns, poison gas and land mines.' He returned on March 19, 1925.

Seven weeks later, he died of a cold that may have been the result of a too sudden change of climate. Two weeks before his death, he gave a concise overview of his policy at an annual meeting.

He then employed 85,000 people around the world.

Lever once underlined to union members the importance of leadership, his leadership, as follows. “An old man who steps on the bellows of an organ and says he makes music is as wrong as one who claims that labor is the source of all wealth.

I like this example because it goes without saying that there is no music when the old man stops pedaling the bellows.

But it's clear that he can blow as long and as hard as he likes, yet no music will come out unless someone in the know plays the keys.' The source of wealth for him was not labour, nor labor and capital, it was the tripod of capital, labor and leadership.

House historian Charles Wilson : 'According to him, good leadership ensured that capital and labor could bear fruit. And leadership meant: someone who played the keys.' The goal was greater production.

Lever: 'There is no other way to create more wealth and happiness for everyone than to produce more goods.'

Even when Lever lay under the green sod, his concern would not rest. D'Arcy Cooper, the new president of Lever Brothers, led the company in 1929 to a merger with the Dutch Margarine Union, one of the largest mergers in the history of Europe.

Unilever is today eighth in the world ranking of largest companies.

It has 500 branches in 90 countries and sells products in 70 others. In 1999, Unilever announced that it wanted to reduce its 1600 brands to 400 in three years.

That year it took over the French Amora Maille (sauces and mustard), in 2000 the ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry's and the American food giant Bestfoods.

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