The roots of Overseas Committee, which was formed in October 1926, lie in the earlier system which evolved at Lever Brothers. Until 1915 a Lever Brothers director (director of Imperial and Foreign departments) was responsible for overseas subsidiaries and before the formation of Overseas Committee local management in Lever Brothers overseas subsidiaries had a certain autonomy. This director was replaced by the Foreign Associated Companies control board, comprising of three directors of overseas companies and controlling: 1) South Africa, France, Belgium, Nigeria and Belgian Congo (DOC dept A); 2) China, Japan, and India (DOC dept B); 3) America, Scandinavia, and Holland (DOC dept C, but known as DASH after the directors initials).
The DOCs were responsible for most Lever Brothers activities overseas, including exports. William Lever was still the dominant personality at this time and the overseas companies were linked via him rather than being part of a united Lever organisation worldwide. For this reason the DOC structure did not evolve into a cohesive unit until after Lever's death.
Overseas Committee was eventually formed to draw together departments responsible for Africa, the Far East and Europe/USA (excluding work already carried out by UAC). It virtually took over from the DOCs, and had three main functions; a) to act collectively (meeting daily); b) to set up subordinate departments, each dealing with one subject for all overseas companies under the committees control (therefore cutting across territorial boundaries for the first time); and c) to supervise Export Committee (later United Exporters Ltd) to ensure that exporting and manufacturing of goods overseas was complementary, and not competing.
After the formation of Unilever, Overseas Committee was no longer responsible for the European businesses (which were transferred to Continental Committee) and was re-consituted in 1931 with the addition of 2 senior representatives from continental companies [note - North America reported directly to Special Committee]. It supervised existing Lever manufacturing companies and other subsidiaries, and the exports of Lever products via UEL.
In November 1932 it was decided that Overseas Committee should no longer act collectively at meetings with Special Committee to discuss estimates, capital proposals etc. The overseas companies were divided into lists and each of the four directors became responsible for one list of companies. The directors visited each country, wrote reports; and spoke for overseas companies on Overseas Committee, at conference and in meetings with Special Committee.
Unilever was re-organised in 1938 with the shares of Unilever Ltd companies outside the British Empire and the Commonwealth (USA, Philippines, China, Siam, Indonesia and Latin America) being transferred to Unilever NV. This divided the Overseas Committee area and it was technically dissolved. The Empire Overseas Committee was responsible for all British territories and the old Continental Committee, renamed Unilever NV (Continental & Overseas) Committee, took control of all non-British overseas companies. This distinction did not last however, mainly due to the impact of the Second World War, and also due to the fact that Overseas Committee and Continental & Overseas Committee were both based at Unilever House and reported to Special Committee.
In October 1943 all continental and overseas companies were divided between 4 co-ordinating directors and Overseas Committee once again technically finished. A new marketing department took over the routine work of the old Overseas Committee, and Overseas Committee sales and technical staff formed the nucleus of the new Marketing Advisory Division and Technical Division. The co-ordinating directors were re-organised in January 1945 as Contact Directors and this system led to the loss of distinction between British, European and Overseas enterprises. By 1949 the whole Unilever system was unified at the top by the Contact Directors, with each taking responsibility for a different part of the concern. The UK side was organised along product lines, therefore there was a contact director for each of the Home Executives - soap; oil milling; margarine and food. Overseas was still organised on a national or company basis, with Contact Directors for geographical areas - two for western Europe, and five for the rest of the world.
The Contact Directors system gradually devolved back into an Overseas Committee style set-up and it was officially re-established in 1954. But it was still as individual directors meeting, rather than a collective unit. UEL was restructured and Plantations was established as a separate supervisory mechanism. Directors who had been allocated neighbouring countries since 1949 now had countries from different areas allocated more randomly. Long overseas visits were replaced by more frequent and briefer trips, usually made by experts from the Co-ordinations as well. An Overseas Committee chairman was formally established in January 1958.
By this time Overseas Committee had five main functions:
1) collective responsibility for all overseas companies within its executive management group;
2) to handle correspondence between overseas companies/units and head office departments;
3) to promote overseas companies interests and proposals;
4) to put forward new ideas of possible interest to subsidiaries and to process proposals for investment, new brands etc, from overseas companies;
5) personnel matters. It was concerned with the Unilever's overseas 'empire' but it never had exclusive control over overseas interests, e.g. not UAC or Plantations.
In 1965 the Tropical Africa Committee, consisting of Overseas Committee and UAC chairman plus the head of plantations, was set up as a formal link between Overseas Committee and UAC. It did not last long however and was disbanded in 1968.
OVERSEAS REGIONAL MANAGEMENT
Overseas Committee merged with UAC International in 1987 to form Overseas Regional Management (see separate Regional Management catalogue for description) .
[In line with UARM's policy on confidentiality and closure periods, certain records in this collection are closed]