How William Lever built a business empire from soap

On this day, September 19 in the year 1851, the co-founder of the largest consumer goods company in the world was born in Bolton, United Kingdom. His name was William Lever, the entrepreneur who built the Lever Brothers Company, now known as Unilever.

William Lever
William Lever (Credit: wiki commons)

William Lever was the son of a religious wholesale grocer. He was sent to study at Bolton Church Institute from 1864 to 1865. At that time, not many English people could afford such education. However he did not go to college because his father wanted him to work in the family business instead.

Some years later, William Lever learned how to make soap with the help of a local chemist named William Watson. In 1884, he decided to focus on producing pre-cut and individually wrapped soap bars which were made from palm oil and glycerine. In 1885, he and his invalid brother James bought a small soap factory. The next year, the two brothers founded the Lever Brothers to produce and market this free-lathering soap which at first was called Honey Soap. The subsequent years saw the company grow by leaps and bound with their renamed Sunlight soap being marketed not only throughout the United Kingdom but also in other countries.

One of William’s chief concerns was the welfare of his employees. He built a whole community called Port Sunlight for the benefit of his increasing number of workers. The village included facilities such as high-quality accommodation, heated swimming pool, world-class gym, church, schools and a hospital.

By 1925, Lever Brothers had 85,000 employees around the world. In 1930, the company was merged with the Dutch Margarine Unie to form Unilever. The new company is now the largest multinational consumer goods company with strong brands not only in soaps and shampoos but also in food.

William Lever died of pneumonia in 1925. He married Elizabeth Hulme who bore him a son named after him.


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