The Great Debate: Shareholder Activism in the Boardroom

October 15th, 2013 | By

While the term “shareholder activist” can send a shiver down the spines of corporate directors, there are often positive outcomes from this activity. Janet F. Clark, former executive vice president and CFO, Marathon Oil Corp. and director, Dell, YES Prep Public Schools, Teach for America; Darren Novak, senior vice president, Houlihan Lokey; Brian L. Schorr, chief legal officer and partner, Trian Fund Management; and Andrew E. Shapiro, president, Lawndale Capital Management discuss how and why activist shareholders can be a force for good.

Shareholder activists can take on many forms, and Schorr said activists typically fall into four broad categories: merger and acquisition activism, balance sheet activism, governance activism, and income statement/operational activism—which is the key analysis of his firm. “We want to create long-term shareholder value by focusing on the balance sheet, working closely with management and boards,” he said.

Behind the Scenes Activism

While activists are often making headlines in the media, Shapiro was quick to note the value in trying to engage with a company before going public. “Activism is inherently disruptive and can be costly to stakeholders, directors, and management—and even to activist investors,” Shapiro said. “There is great value in trying to engage with the board and management to resolve issues and determine irreconcilable differences.”

Schorr noted that his firm generally attempts to set up a meeting with the CEO and often a representative from the board to present strategic ideas before going public. “Our goal is to have a voice in the boardroom and persuade the board [that] there might be a different strategy they haven’t considered,” he said.

Activists at the Table

If a board and management are doing their jobs—actively testing strategies, looking at metrics and peer performance, and seeking improvement to increase firm value—they won’t get a knock on the door from activists, Clark said.

If, however, that knock does come, it should not be completely jarring to the company. “If a board is approached by [an] activist with an idea management hasn’t pursued, the activist is doing a positive thing. Management shouldn’t be surprised by concept,” Clark said.

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