A world-famous company. Two headquarters. But now there can be only one.

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A world-famous company. Two headquarters. But now there can be only one.

I’m not writing about Amazon in 10 years. Amid all the hubbub over HQ2, most Yanks have missed a drama playing out in Europe. Next month, Unilever is set to winnow its two headquarters — London and Rotterdam — down to one. And London, already struggling with Brexit uncertainty, is preparing for the worst.

The Financial Times reports, “At stake is the big political prize of being able to call Europe’s largest diversified consumer goods group their own. By market value, Unilever is the second-biggest company in the Netherlands and the third-biggest in the UK. It employs 7,500 in the UK and 3,000 in the Netherlands, and has significant investments in both countries through large research and development centers.”

The company traces its roots to a 1929 merger between Britain’s Lever Brothers and Margarine Unie of the Netherlands. The twin headquarters were apparently maintained for political balance in a real and rare merger of equals. A competitor of Procter & Gamble, Unilever is known for such diverse brands as Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

For decades, Unilever could enjoy the luxury of two headquarters, but apparently no longer. Stockholders are pressing for higher short-term returns. Last year the company got a scare with a takeover bid from Kraft Heinz (itself the creation of a 2015 merger). Unilever fought it off, but the message was clear. Paul Polman, the chief executive, is determined to streamline. Also, being in the EU and Holland would allow Unilever to take advantage of better defenses against hostile takeovers.

Any lessons for our little town on Elliott Bay? Nothing good lasts forever — Unilever had a nearly 90-year run before really feeling the heat. Amazon, in our faster world, should be so lucky.

Also, it’s extremely rare for companies to have two “equal” headquarters. This was promised in many a bank merger of the 1990s, only to be quickly discarded. Royal Dutch Shell is, on paper, headquartered in London and the Hague, but the real base is the latter. Based on typical corporate governance, the big decisions are made in only one location.

To be sure, Amazon has a history of doing things differently and having very patient shareholders. But barring a division of the company or a breakup, it’s hard to imagine Amazon straying from a basic and efficient model. Or that shareholders would indulge it forever without clear advantages being shown.

If Amazon builds out a “fully equal” second headquarters, only one will be where the big decisions are made.

Finally, with 40,000 employees and growing, plus 50,000 promised for HQ2, Amazon has enormous head counts of high-paying jobs. Compare that with the numbers above for Unilever. It’s a big bonus for Seattle, but also a big risk. Wall Street hates employees — stock prices rise when layoffs are announced. So far, Amazon has gotten a pass.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Rising inflation?

A trucking boss tells me, yes

Watched by Fed express