Rethinking IR: Investor Insights

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Shareholder activism is on the rise. Between January 2010 and September 2013, shareholder actions carried out all over the world surged by 88 percent. Going back to the past 10 years, the number of shareholders with specific activist strategies has doubled. These statistics drive home the need for boards to have healthy investor dialogues year-round—not just when in the throes of proxy season. Looking ahead to 2015, a slate of top influencers in the investor community offered their insights on what the top priorities for boards are going to be. Panelists included: Donna F. Anderson, vice president and corporate governance specialist, T. Rowe Price; Glenn Booraem, principal fund controller, Vanguard; and Stu Dalheim, vice president, shareholder advocacy, Calvert. Peter Gleason, director, Nura Health and managing director and CFO, NACD, moderated the panel.

Using NACD’s Investor Perspectives: Critical Issues Board Focus in 2014 as a framework, Gleason noted that first and foremost: “It’s important for the board to know their investors. It’s too easy to lump them all together—but each investor has their own objectives. Engagement strategies are similarly different from one institution to the next. For example, Dalheim explained that at Calvert, their approach is always to engage with constructive outcomes in mind. Furthermore, there are three principles that guide their approach:

  1. Long-term value creation.
  2. Accountability, where management is accountable to the board and the board is accountable to shareholders.
  3. Sustainability, where companies that are sustainable from a financial, environmental, and societal perspectives will be more successful.

In addition, Dalheim explained that the approach to engagement strategy varies depending on the industry. Calvert has analysts that focus on specific sectors and know the governance practices in each sector. In that review process, they see which companies have room to improve. Furthermore, Calvert makes a point of fostering and developing relationships with portfolio companies over time, ensuring that there are open lines of communication. These open lines of communication are fortified by disclosures, which are critical to investor relations.

Anderson emphasized the responsibility of the shareholder on their side of the relationship. From her perspective, shareholders should respond to engagement requests in well-prepared ways, with the proper resources and with a team that is committed to creating a productive engagement experience. On the other side of the table, directors should engage if there has been a request to do so, or that there is a need for those exchanges to take place. With that in mind, she said that there are three key questions an institutional investor should ask before engaging with directors:

  1. Do we have standing to talk to these directors?
  2. Do we have something constructive to offer?
  3. Will this be constructive? And by extension, does the institutional investor think that the board will constructively work with them?

The panel closed by looking ahead at the pressing issues that will present themselves in the coming year. Anderson singled out the issue of bylaws: principles that institutional investors generally believe they can count on, but may not actually be in place for whatever reason. (For example, a company may have revoked its bylaws.) Boards may avoid putting certain bylaws into effect out of fear of activism; however, there needs to be a dialogue about what bylaws boards can change unilaterally.

Booream said that engagement is likely to be triggered by observable components that cause a board to be an outlier—for example, boards whose directors have above-average tenure or boards that lack minority directors. On this score he advised directors to observe the ways in which their boards are outliers, and either own it and explain why their governance practices are in shareholders’ best interests or fix the problems. Shifts in boardroom mindsets will not happen overnight, so it’s important to initiate those conversations as soon as possible.

Dalheim pointed to the issue of director qualifications. He said that boards should have a list of areas of expertise that are needed to effectively oversee the company and then explain how the current board slate illustrates those attributes. In his opinion, this list helps boards identify what’s needed to create growth. Nevertheless, there is currently little disclosure with regard to board evaluations, in terms of either the process or the outcomes. Some companies have an annual statement about board performance–and resulting action steps–which may be a pay that draws increased scrutiny in the coming year.

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