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Terry Smith vs Unilever: which is guilty of mayo madness?

Terry Smith has mayo on his mind — and presumably on his sandwiches and salads. The investor is annoyed that Unilever’s management spends its time pondering the “purpose” of Hellmann’s mayonnaise instead of making more money.

You can see why Smith is upset. His Fundsmith platform has delivered stellar returns to retail investors since inception. But a long streak of outperformance was broken last year thanks to a handful of weak stocks.

Unilever, where Fundsmith is the 10th-biggest shareholder, was one of the culprits. Smith complained in his annual letter this week that the company’s management was “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business”. 

The broadside drew attention because it is so rare for an investor to challenge a company’s focus on environmental, social and governance standards.

Institutions such as BlackRock are cheerleaders for ESG. Even harder-nosed hedge funds find it convenient to play along. Elliott Management, not known for tree-hugging or corporate guff, last month pressed for a break-up of Scottish energy group SSE to “attract more ESG capital from active and passive investors alike, consistent with the COP26 target to mobilise international finance to support those on the forefront of today’s energy transition”.

Such monomania is unhealthy. The evangelists ignore the fact that US companies with high ESG scores performed worse than lower-rated companies last year, according to Credit Suisse research.

Vocal sceptics, though, are thin on the ground. One of the few to bet against ESG is hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, who sees profits in controversial areas such as palm oil, aluminium and North Sea oilfields. “The fun is everywhere,” says Odey. “The non-fun is trying to work out how ESG is BP relative to Shell.”

All the same, you can believe that ESG is overhyped, that good assets are being needlessly discarded, that management time is wasted on sustainability initiatives — yet still find merit in Unilever’s quest for brands with purpose.

Smith’s mayo missile — “a company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot” — missed its mark.

Smith notes that the Hellmann’s brand has endured since 1913. But other equally venerable brands have fallen by the wayside. Kraft Heinz’s Velveeta cheese is also more than 100 years old but is no longer flavour of the month with more health-conscious consumers. Unilever’s high-fat condiment is under similar threat. Mayo sales fell 13.8 per cent in the US last year, according to data from Euromonitor International.

Not only is the healthiness under scrutiny but dastardly millennials and zoomers are shunning it in favour of “seven sorts of salsa, kimchi, wasabi, relishes of every ilk and hue”, as one magazine article put it, worrying about the relative rise of “identity condiments”. 

Mayo is too basic. And so is Smith’s critique. It is not a distraction for Unilever to market mayo in different ways — adding flavours and, yes, selling it as sustainable: a way to avoid food waste by pepping up leftovers.

In consumer brands, as in investing, past performance is no guarantee of future success.

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