The majority of companies in the United States are small cap, defined as companies below $500 million in market capitalization. While they are rich in ingenuity, small-cap companies have unique challenges that can be daunting for any board to manage. With smaller staffs and fewer resources than their large-cap counterparts, the time and talents of company executives are spread thin in the face of pressure for fast growth in an uncertain economic environment. This July, NACD, in partnership with Epsen Fuller Group, Fenwick & West, and Latham & Watkins held its second Small-Cap Forum. Over the course of a day, a collective of experts helmed six sessions at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel to dissect the directors’ role in helping to build their companies. The following are three themes that emerged from the presentations:
Plan ahead. Many small-cap companies make the mistake of placing too much emphasis on budgeting. Innovation rarely, if ever, emerges from evaluating figures. Shift gears to take a close, hard look at your company and think about creating a strategic plan. A plan should ideally map out the next five years of the company—no fewer than three—and determine what resources are needed to meet those goals. Allot plenty of time outside of regular meetings to discuss various game plans, setting milestones to review the strategy.
Work with the founder. When assessing and building out the company’s long-term goals, the board also needs to pay attention to management. Small-cap companies often have a culture centered on the founder/CEO, and while that person’s innovative and entrepreneurial drive may have been enough to give legs to a nascent business, those skills may not be aligned with the firm’s needs and goals in subsequent stages of growth. That said, the board shouldn’t write off the leadership already in place. Building support around the C-suite can help enable the CEO to succeed in an increasingly expanding role, or to step down with dignity if required. By extension, start looking within the company for talent that can take the reins in the next three to five years. Broaching this topic can be highly sensitive; however, the longer a leadership gap exists at the CEO level in a small-cap environment, the greater the risk of a succession crisis.
Mind the gaps. The purpose of board-level committees is to share the workload so that board members can effectively “divide and conquer”; however, small-cap boards are traditionally half the size of a large-cap company—so small that the same directors frequently serve on multiple committees. Stretching resources this thin means that there is zero room for non-contributing directors, or else the board runs the risk of being unable to carry out its responsibilities effectively. Small-cap boards should create a skills matrix that charts each director’s areas of expertise—and reveals where the board’s collective knowledge base may be lacking.
A small-cap board should also put forth the effort to bridge the gap between the company and its shareholders. Any opportunity to engage with and better understand your shareholder base is a good idea, and is a particular imperative in the small-company environment where ownership may be more concentrated. Also realize that many small-cap boards become targets of activist investors. Prepare for those interactions not only by doing due diligence on activists’ investment styles and track records, but also by being willing to listen to the activists’ points of view.
Look for a full recap of the Small-Cap Forum in the September/October 2014 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.
The 2013-2014 NACD Public Company Governance Survey found that strategic planning and oversight ranked as the number one issue for directors. While risk oversight came in at number 3, Paula Cholmondeley—who serves on the boards of Terex and Dentsply International Inc.—finds it curious that risk doesn’t follow strategy as the number 2 priority because these issues are part and parcel of each other.
During a May 6 panel discussion at the C-Suite to Board Seat program at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., Cholmondeley and fellow panelist Greg Pratt offered their perspectives on the board’s role in overseeing strategy and risk. Cholmondeley emphasized that strategic thinking is where directors add the most value to a company. Furthermore, boardroom discussions surrounding strategy should be viewed on an ongoing basis—not as a single event. Chairman of Carpenter Technology Group and director of Tredegar Corp., Pratt went on to compare strategy to a GPS system: A tool that tells you where you are, where you want to go, and the possible ways to reach that destination. According to Pratt, directors have a responsibility to use strategic discussions and planning to decide which route is best for the business.
THREE KEY TAKEAWAYS FOR OVERSEEING STRATEGY
1. Educate yourself—and others. This is especially important for directors serving on boards in industries in which they do not have prior experience. Reading industry publications, attending relevant conferences, and getting exposure to as many sources of industry information possible can help directors enrich board discussions. Similarly, directors should ensure that the strategic goals are well-known throughout the company. This could include requesting that the CEO meet with staff so that goals are communicated to the lower levels of the company.
2. Set reasonable benchmarks. Directors should consider the critical assumptions underpinning the strategic plan. For example, how much progress is the company expected to make in the course of a month? Evaluate whether those benchmarks are reasonable for your company by consulting regional or national industry sources as well as third-party sources.
3. Monitor the course and evolve the strategy. The board should consistently review corporate performance with respect to the strategy, and alter course when necessary. Boardroom culture should support open discussions with the c-suite—and management should feel free to report to the board areas where the strategy may or may not be working. As a company reacts to different economic environments, the board needs to be able to evaluate which initiatives worked, which initiative work over a period of time because they are key to your business.
1. Get the committees involved. While ultimate responsibility for governing risk lies at the board level, the board can look to committees for support. In publically-traded companies, the audit committee has traditionally assumed the responsibility of risk oversight. A growing trend, however, is to delegate specific risks to various standing committees. The board can also create new committees that manage the emerging facets of risk, such as keeping the board abreast of new sources of competition.
2. Work with management to assess risk. Open communication between management and the board is critical, especially because the C-suite is likely to be the first to see that a strategy is not working. Directors should learn how risk discussions take place within the various departments and business lines, and establish multiple avenues through which directors can work with management.
3. Be aware of the risks around the corner. The board should constantly review potential non-traditional sources of competition, for example, Amazon’s move to enter the dental distribution market. Likewise, a company should work to make itself obsolete—best itself at its own game before the competition—and then create a strategy that will again put the company on the cutting edge of its industry.
NACD will continue to discuss these issues throughout 2014. Our Directorship 2020 events explore the disruptive forces that create new challenges in the boardroom and our forthcoming 2014 Blue Ribbon Commission Report will address the board’s role in recalibrating strategy. The topic will also be discussed at the next C-Suite to Board Seat in Beverly Hills, CA.
For nearly three years, the boardroom maintained a consistent response to a tumultuous marketplace. Whether it was following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, navigating an economic recovery unlike any other, or facing a debt crisis with global implications, reaction from directors seemed to stay the same. Year over year, NACD’s Annual Governance Surveys did not register significant upheavals in methods or structures used. Areas of high priority continue to be strategic planning and oversight, corporate performance and valuation, and risk oversight.
NACD’s Board Confidence Index (BCI), a measure of the boardroom’s attitude toward the state of the economy, told a similar story. Although the index would fluctuate by a few points from quarter to quarter, confidence remained in the slightly optimistic side of uncertain.
This changed last fall when the nation was forced to address the pending fiscal cliff. At November’s NACD Directorship 100 event, DuPont Chairman and CEO Ellen Kullman remarked that uncertainty over future regulatory activity and the general economy had led her company to reevaluate major investments for 2013. Uncertainty in the future of the economy and consumer demand also significantly impacted Coca-Cola’s decisions to make capital investments, according to presiding director James D. Robinson III.
Just a few weeks later, results from the fourth quarter BCI further demonstrated how the economy affected the boardroom. Although the overall index score remained on the positive side of uncertain (51.8), for the first time responding directors indicated outright pessimism in the state of the economy in the next three months. Directors also echoed the statements made at NACD Directorship 100: In preparation for 2013 nearly half (47%) had reassessed corporate strategy.
The need to focus on strategy was also confirmed at NACD’s recently held Master Class in Naples, Florida. Although sessions were designed to address the new and emerging risks entering the boardroom, discussions often returned to the importance of strategic planning in uncertain times. Both panelists and attendees agreed that directors need to keep a steady eye on the established strategic plans at hand.
This recommendation is not without caveat. With a maintained focus, directors should not relegate a discussion on strategy to an annual event. Instead, the established strategic plans should be woven into every board meeting and discussion. Furthermore, plans should be adjusted to incorporate flexibility from the boardroom. This includes shorter response times that are now necessary to address situations that could be presented by emerging methods of communication and rapidly changing technologies.