Article | Business History Review | fall 2002

Control, Performance, and Knowledge Transfers in Large Multinationals: Unilever in the United States, 1945-1980

by G. Jones

Abstract

This article considers key issues relating to the organization and performance of large multinational firms in the post-Second World War period. Although foreign direct investment is defined by ownership and control, in practice the nature of that "control" is far from straightforward. The issue of control is examined, as is the related question of the "stickiness" of knowledge within large international firms. The discussion draws on a case study of the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods manufacturer Unilever, which has been one of the largest direct investors in the United States in the twentieth century. After 1945 Unilever's once successful business in the United States began to decline, yet the parent company maintained an arms-length relationship with its U.S. affiliates, refusing to intervene in their management. Although Unilever "owned" large U.S. businesses, the question of whether it "controlled" them was more debatable.

Keywords: Multinational Firms and Management; Governance Controls; Performance; Business or Company Management; Ownership; Consumer Products Industry; Manufacturing Industry; United States;