When you generate almost $50 billion in annual sales, operate around the world, and have literally dozens of brands to manage, operational turnarounds take time. That said, Unilever (NYSE:UL) (NYSE:UN) has already made considerable progress, and I think better days may lie ahead.

Given still-difficult conditions in Europe, I think Unilever did all right for its fourth quarter. One word of warning, though: There are many ways to review these numbers (including/excluding currency, adjusting for a different number of days in the quarter, etc.), so your interpretation of the numbers may be a bit different from mine.

While reported revenue climbed more than 3% for the quarter, underlying performance (that is, excluding currency) was down very slightly (0.1%) as a decline in volumes just outpaced a rise in pricing. Adjusting the numbers to a "like for like" number of days, though, reverses that to a modest revenue increase. Likewise, profit comparisons with the year-ago quarter are obscured by some charges in the year-ago periods.

That said, the adjusted operating margin declined slightly this quarter (about 130 basis points) on higher ad spending. Free cash flow declined year over year, though the company's reported 12.5% return on invested capital improved upon the year-ago figure.

Conditions are still tough in Europe, but emerging and developing markets could be an ace in the hole for Unilever over the long haul. This company gets roughly more than one-third of its revenue outside Western Europe and North America -- a figure that seems to trail that of Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) but surpasses those of Danone (NYSE:DA) and Nestle. With the relatively faster economic growth and improving per-capita wealth in these regions, this could be a valuable foothold, as consumers increasingly find themselves able to afford better food and personal-care products.

I was disappointed to see that Unilever chose to maintain its dual-share structure, but it doesn't really make the company as a whole that much less attractive. More aggressive investors might find the potential in these shares a little unimpressive, but it still seems like a solid turnaround story to me.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).