Author Archive

NACD BLC 2014 Breakout Session – Balancing Shareholders and Capital Markets

December 2nd, 2014 | By

On the morning of Tuesday, October 14, 2014, a group of Board Leadership Conference attendees  joined Alan M. Klein, Partner, Simpson Thacher; Jamie S. Moser, Partner, Joele Frank; and moderator Chris Ruggeri Principal, Deloitte for a power breakfast session entitled “Balancing Shareholders and Capital Markets”.

The Landscape

It is well known that there has been a rise in shareholder activism over the last few years. There are more than 400 activist funds today with more than $100 billion under management. If viewed as an asset class, activist funds are a top performer. Money flows to where it can generate the largest return, and activist-backed funds have flourished. In turn, panelists observed that this has emboldened shareholders of all stripes. In their quest to have a more prominent voice in how companies are run, these investors have changed the dynamics of company-shareholder interaction.

There are many different kinds of shareholders ranging from professional, established investors to newer, smaller entrants into the market. Moser believes that some larger organizations that tend to maintain long-term positions in companies can be considered activists as well. While they prefer not to run campaigns on their own, they feed ideas to others who will. Klein noted, “In a sense these ‘long only’ funds have outsourced their activism”.

Tactics

Panelists noted that activist shareholders don’t pick targets lightly. They spend a significant amount of time drilling down into companies, and have a surprising depth of knowledge. As such, it would be a mistake to disregard them or view them as superficial. Nevertheless, there is often a mismatch between the way those who run companies view their businesses and the perspective of many activists.

Governance issues can be used as part of a shareholder’s demands. Although they are not typically the crux of an activist fight, these issues can become part of the story and set the tone. For example, panelists cited topics such as related party transactions or sluggish board turnover as “low hanging fruit” for shareholders. Even if these issues have been properly disclosed, a shareholder may use them to put the company on the defensive.

On the other hand, some investors – particularly the more well-established fund – ask for reasonable conversations with the board and management. Panelists observed that if directors can demonstrate to them the validity of the current plan and why their thesis is wrong, some investors may listen or even back off. That being the case, engagement is extremely important.

Outreach

It is critical that directors understand the perspective of the company’s shareholders. The first question Moser asks  a company is, “When’s the last time you spoke with your top 10 shareholders?

Further, the board should engage with shareholders for the first time outside proxy season, when the discussion is often centered around voting. Then, if a proxy contest starts, the company can reply “our board has been speaking directly with shareholders; we’ve been active and engaged.” Meetings between the board and investors should demonstrate transparency and openness. Directors can simply ask investors, “what’s on your mind?” Of course, panelists noted that it is important to remain conscious of Regulation FD; avoid the discussion of material items in a one-on-one setting.

Boards can also go beyond annual “deep dives” to ensure the current strategy is still viable. For example, Klein suggested that boards invite a banker to give a presentation, valuing the strategic plan and showing how it stacks up to strategic alternatives. If the board has conducted this type of analysis, they are more able to speak to the current strategy’s strengths and how it will produce the most value for the company. It is also important that the strategic plan for the company is communicated in the most compelling way possible. “The first three-quarters of any ‘fight letter,’” Moser noted, should be about strategy – how your strategy provides more value than what the shareholder is proposing.”

Activist Investors on the Board

Finally, the panel discussed how boards can work with new activist directors once elected to the board. Klein noted that most activist situations  today end in a negotiated outcome:  Either a proxy fight doesn’t start, or the fight may end before it ever gets to a vote. Typically, as the result of a negotiation, the shareholder ends up with one or two seats. If these new directors can make their case in a logical manner, a fresh perspective may prove beneficial for a board.

Ultimately, panelists agreed that there has been a sea change regarding how companies and their shareholders interact. To the question of whether activism is good or bad, the answer is “yes”– it depends on facts and circumstances.

NACD BLC 2014 Breakout Session – Going Beyond: Stories of Pushing Past Personal Limits

October 28th, 2014 | By

It should go without saying that governance in today’s complex business environment is no walk in the park. But are there lessons to be learned from a run in the Sahara? At the recent 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Steinman aimed to provide the answer to that question in a session titled “Going Beyond: Stories of Pushing Past Personal Limits.”

In the session, Steinman told the story of the creation of her latest film, “Desert Runners,” which follows people who take on the formidable challenge of competing in the 4 Deserts Race Series (4 Deserts). 4 Deserts includes a series of four ultra-marathons: races involving distances greater than the 26.2 miles that compose a typical marathon. The races take place in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth, including the Sahara, Gobi, and Atacama deserts, and Antarctica.

Steinman began the film project with a series of questions, including “what are these perceived limitations that we put on ourselves?” and “are these crazy people?” She arrived at the first race expecting to find a group of elite, superhuman athletes, and was surprised to find that, for the most part, the runners were what you might call “everyday” people; people with day jobs, mortgages, and families. Steinman’s film follows four people who decided to take on this challenge. In the course of the conference session, attendees were introduced—through video clips—to three of them: a student named Samantha, age 25; an American consultant named Ricky, age 33; and Dave, a 56-year-old marketing director and friend of Steinman’s who introduced her to the competition. Dave was one of 13 runners attempting to complete all four grueling races of 4 Deserts in one year, a feat known as the “Grand Slam.”

Steinman shared a series of her favorite clips from the documentary, and as might be imagined, Samantha, Ricky, and Dave confronted a wide variety of physical challenges, including dehydration, illness, exhaustion, and a great deal of pain.

So how did all of that tie into directorship? The challenges and struggles of the runners echoed many of the themes emphasized elsewhere at conference.

An injury suffered by Ricky provides an example. Given the long distances and extreme conditions involved in the races of 4 Deserts, some degree of pain is unavoidable. However, as Steinman pointed out, racers must constantly ask themselves, “is this real pain, pain I need to deal with, pain that can do real damage?” If the answer is “yes” to those questions, as it was in Ricky’s case, a runner needs to recognize this and give it the attention it requires. However, if the answer is “no,” any runner who intends to finish the race must recognize this, and avoid attaching more meaning to the pain than is merited.

As part of risk oversight, directors also receive an overwhelming amount of urgent information from a variety of sources, and must contextualize it on the basis of their own experience so they can ask the right questions of management. The board should ensure that the risk oversight processes in place have the capability to differentiate between a real threat and the intermittent challenges that occur in the normal course of business. When a real threat is detected, a director must not let pride get in the way of taking the appropriate actions, as the consequences could become progressively worse.

Another of Steinman’s film clips showed a series of gruesome injuries suffered by runners. Watching the clips quite naturally might cause one to wonder why anyone would willingly participate in such a competition. Steinman found that part of the answer to that stemmed from the camaraderie of being marooned in the desert with a common goal. While a small contingent of elite runners are in the race to win, the vast majority have the simple goal of finishing. Even a relatively competitive person would likely concede that running consecutive marathons across the Sahara or Antarctica is hardly your typical “participation medal,” and many runners rely on each other at times to accomplish this remarkable feat.

In a particularly poignant clip, a professional runner holds Samantha by the hand and they help each other to the next check point. Though they may be significantly different in kind, corporate directors certainly face their own challenges. The reasons directors take on the responsibilities and liabilities inherent in the role are many, but by concentrating on the reasons they are there, and augmenting their own expertise with the expertise of others around the table, each director, board, and company can reach their goals.

NACD BLC 2014 Breakout Session – Inside the SEC: Anatomy of an Agency

October 28th, 2014 | By

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is charged with maintaining fair and efficient markets, facilitating capital formation, and, like directors, protecting investor interests. This regulatory arm of the federal government has a significant impact on businesses, but many may not effectively understand the commission’s inner workings. Providing directors with an insider look at the SEC was a panel comprised of: Mark D. Cahn, former general counsel of the SEC’s Office of the General Counsel, and partner at WilmerHale; Thomas J. Kim, partner at Sidley Austin and former chief counsel and associate director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance; Troy Paredes, senior strategy and policy advisor at PwC and former SEC commissioner; and moderator Kendra Decker, partner in Grant Thornton’s National Professional Standards Group.

The SEC has five commissioners, each of whom is selected by the president of the United States, and no more than three of them can be from the same political party. The president also selects one commissioner to serve as chair. The chair sets the agenda and makes senior hiring decisions; however, this does not create a hierarchy as that professional title might imply. The commissioners are like a board of directors, with each person maintaining their own, independent voice as they vote on the issues set before them.

“No one commissioner has the power to do anything,” Kim said. “They only have power by acting as a commission, just like a board must act as a collective body.” Although the SEC is generally thought of as a rulemaking entity, Cahn pointed out that it’s a relatively infrequent occurrence that commissioners actually cast a vote. The organization’s day-to-day workings are processed at the staff level—and, in turn, the division heads engage with the commissioners.

The panel also drew attention to challenges within the commission. For Cahn, the biggest challenge with regard to rulemaking is the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976, which requires all commission deliberations to be carried out in public. “You end up with meetings of two commissioners with staff members to discuss issues when they could be much more productive to work out matters as a group.”

In addition, trying to pass a rule through a multi-member commission can turn into a game of chess, with each member making suggestions for changes up until the last minute. If a rule passes with a split vote, those dissenting opinions serve as a roadmap to potential litigants who want to challenge the rule—a factor that emphasizes the importance of unanimity within the commission. “I think it [speaks] well for the agency overall when there’s consensus,” Parades said. “But sometimes you can’t bridge those differences. Another aspect is, from time to time, chairs have had a norm where they wouldn’t go forward unless there was a norm of four. What that does, it forces people to compromise and it doesn’t allow those in the majority to say that ‘this is what we’re going to do, regardless.’”

Despite these complexities, Paredes stressed the critical importance of third-party engagement. “The SEC is able to better evaluate the consequences of their rulemaking if they are able to hear from the people their rules are going to impact,” he said. “If [SEC] folks aren’t hearing that through one mechanism or another, there are going to be serious blind spots.”