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”.
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”.
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.
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.