Michael Polk was busy bringing together giants at this time last year.
Consumer goods company Newell Rubbermaid in Atlanta had acquired Jarden Corp. in Boca Raton, Florida, to create the global powerhouse Newell Brands, with approximately $16 billion in annual sales and more than 57,000 employees worldwide.
Then the news broke that it was to be headquartered in Hoboken.
“Certainly, this has been one of the most transformative years in our 114-year history,” Polk, Newell Brands’ CEO, said.
The company now does business in more than 125 countries with a portfolio of nearly 300 housewares and household brands found in 93 percent of U.S. households — 85 percent of which are No. 1 or No. 2 in their respective categories, including brands such as Sharpie, First Alert and Yankee Candle.
“We continue to create what we hope will become one of the leading consumer goods companies in the world,” Polk said.
Polk joined Newell Rubbermaid as CEO and president in 2011 after having served on the company’s board of directors since 2009, bringing with him nearly 30 years of experience in executive leadership with Unilever, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble after graduating from Harvard Business School and Cornell University.
He was well equipped to spend the next five years successfully transforming Newell Rubbermaid from a holding company to an operating company, accelerating the growth rate from less than 2 percent to more than 5 percent while simultaneously expanding the business’s margins and cash generation.
It was a no-brainer that he would continue with his work after Newell Rubbermaid merged with Jarden in April of last year.
“I feel very privileged and fortunate to lead Newell Brands now,” Polk said. “It has been quite an honor and one that I take very seriously.”
Starting with the fact that he wanted no employees to feel like they were being “acquired.”
“We wanted to create a new, world-class organization,” Polk said. “That is why we chose to place our corporate headquarters in a neutral location.”
While the company would continue to maintain its business hubs in Atlanta; Boca Raton, Florida; and Norwalk, Connecticut, as well a design center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the executive team set out to find at least 100,000 square feet of space for a headquarters that would allow it to establish a global e-commerce division and house the company’s transformation office.
That is when the New Jersey Economic Development Authority stepped in, offering $27 million in tax incentives to help facilitate a move to Hoboken.
Mission accomplished. Newell Brands’ new global headquarters opened in November of last year.
Moving to New Jersey was just the first step in the company’s Growth Game Plan.
Next, Newell Brands would consolidate its existing 32 business units into 16 operating divisions.
Then, it would put up nearly 10 percent of its business divisions for sale in order to accelerate debt paydown.
Finally, the company would define a new set of investment priorities in order to create a more focused and scalable platform for future acquisitions.
The plan is working.
“In the context of unprecedented change, we have delivered very strong full-year results, with core sales growth of 3.7 percent and normalized earnings per share growth of nearly 33 percent,” Polk said.
Newell Brands did announce the sale of its nearly $70 million Rubbermaid consumer storage totes business to United Solutions, a leading supplier of plastic products for the home and office, in January. And, more recently, it completed the $1.95 billion sale of its tools division to Stanley Black & Decker in March.
But that made room for much more focused and profitable acquisitions.
“The choices we made during this mergers and acquisitions period were designed to scale the company in absolute size and in a set of categories that we believe we have the potential to lead globally in,” Polk said.
For example, in December of last year, Newell Brands announced the acquisition of Sistema Plastics, a New-Zealand based food storage company with annual sales of nearly $145 million. In January, it acquired Smith Mountain Industries of the WoodWick Candle brand.
“These categories — ones in which we already have leading share positions — are growing,” Polk said. “Through such acquisitions, we hope to be able to scale our position in a way that none of our competitors can.”
The e-commerce trend has not slowed Newell Brands.
In fact, Polk said Newell Brands has been able to deliver its desired outcome despite challenging retail conditions driven by the acceleration of “bricks-to-clicks” shopper migration.
“Consumers are increasingly shopping online and fulfilling their needs through online platforms such as Amazon, Walmart, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond,” he said. “So one of the biggest investments we have made is in our e-commerce capabilities based in New Jersey.
“We are also continuing to establish a set of brand development, innovation, marketing and product design capabilities that cut across all 16 divisions to drive growth in a disciplined way.”
That has helped Newell Brands continue to produce more innovative and differentiated products than its competitors.
Take the Rubbermaid FreshWorks Produce Saver, which helps to preserve fresh berries and leafy green vegetables 80 percent longer, or the Paper Mate InkJoy Gel Pens, which have ink systems that dry three times faster.
“That is where most of our energy goes,” Polk said. “We need to have the sharpest set of consumer insights possible in order to understand how our customers use our products and adapt to different categories.”
All of Newell Brands’ efforts combined have helped propel it to become a Top 10 supplier to Walmart and Amazon. In fact, the company successfully completed its first-ever takeover on Amazon’s “Today’s Deals” page in January, offering more than 500 exclusive deals from 28 brands.
That more than doubled its typical daily sales on the site.
Expectations are understandably high for the rest of the year, but Polk said Newell Brands will rise to the challenge by expanding its more than $1 billion in e-commerce revenue.
“We expect e-commerce to drive 50 percent of our growth over the next five years and, by 2021, e-commerce should represent about 20 percent of total global revenue,” he said. “One of the reasons that we chose to create our headquarters in Hoboken, in fact, was because we wanted to plant the flag for our corporate office close to where we think the talent is for this capability.”
And where a cornucopia of talent from other consumer goods, health care, financial services and marketing companies currently lives and works.
“We view New Jersey as an outstanding place in which to draw talent to and from,” Polk said. “We are pleased beyond belief with the traction we have gotten so far.”
When all is said and done, Polk said that Newell Brands will employ nearly 300 at its headquarters in Hoboken, the majority of which will work in the e-commerce division.
“Many people will be moving to Hoboken from outside New Jersey from our other business units, but we will hire at least 150 new people from the New York metro area,” Polk said.
Polk said he recognizes that is a part of the story that has yet to be written.
“However, I am confident that if I look back five years from now, this will stand out as one of my proudest and most important achievements,” he said. “Of course, nothing happens as a result of individual work.
“Big change only happens through teams of people equally committed and driven to succeed.”
Whatever the outcome, Polk said that Newell Brands would be one of the most transformative companies in the consumer goods space, if not the largest.
“We reach hundreds of millions of consumers every day where they live, learn, work and play,” he said. “We are driven by the prospect of building a company that helps people to do those things every day.”
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