The apotheosis of holding company accounting: Unilever's financial reporting innovations from the 1920s to the 1940s

Kees Camfferman*, Stephen A. Zeff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book / Report / Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


The annual reports of Unilever were widely hailed in the 1940s as outstanding examples of holding company accounting. The accounts did indeed contain many new and innovative features, including segment reporting of sales turnover. This contrasts with the frequently negative assessments of the company's reporting before World War II, and the fact that the company was on record as a relatively late adopter of consolidated statements. In this paper, Unilever's reporting practices from the 1920s to the 1940s are analysed. We argue that the reporting changes of the 1940s had clear antecedents in the 1920s and 1930s, when they emerged in conjunction with the transformation of Unilever from a family-dominated enterprise into a professionally managed organisation. We also argue that, in order to evaluate properly Unilever's pre-war reporting practices, one needs to take into consideration the nature of Unilever as a complex federation of companies, rather than a unitary organisation, and to examine the chairman's address at the annual general meetings. The speeches by Francis D'Arcy Cooper, in particular, contained important disclosures not found in the annual reports. By the early 1940s, Unilever's commitment to improve its financial reporting was sufficiently developed for its officials, in particular Geoffrey Heyworth and P.M.Rees, to play important roles in the drafting of the English Institute's Recommendations on Accounting Principles and in the deliberations of the Company Law Amendment Committee whose report led to the Companies Act 1947. We therefore conclude that Unilever should be ranked with such companies as Dunlop Rubber among the key actors in the modernisation of British financial reporting during the 1930s and 1940s.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInsights from Accounting History
Subtitle of host publicationSelected Writings of Stephen Zeff
PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
Number of pages33
ISBN (Print)0203851293, 9780203851296
Publication statusPublished - 6 May 2010


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