Category: Corporate Governance

The Board’s Role In Brand Oversight

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Jim DeLoach

Jim DeLoach

Branding is the process by which a company establishes a significant and differentiated presence in the marketplace that attracts and retains loyal, long-term customers. A strong brand has a significant impact on the company’s shareholder value. As such, the board should dedicate some time to oversight of the brand’s reputation and stability.

Several thoughts on the board’s governance and oversight of the company’s branding and brand management follow that are based on my firm’s experience and a recent NACD Dallas chapter roundtable discussion I facilitated in September involving active directors and marketing executives.

  • Understand the brand and brand portfolio. While the board’s governance role is rarely involved in the intricacies of managing or communicating the brand, directors should understand the company’s positioning and related brand promise. This baseline understanding is the price of entry into any conversation about a company’s branding. For example, what expectations does the brand inspire in current and prospective customers that differentiate the company’s offerings from competitors’ offerings? Does the company deliver on that brand promise in every customer interaction? Most importantly, how does management know this vital alignment exists? Consider brand implications from other aspects of the business, too: employee relations, supplier interactions, quality processes, research and development, and advertising.
  • Ask management where and when they would value input. Does the board clearly understand the type of interaction management would like to have with respect to the brand management process? Executives and directors should have a mutual objective: engage in dialogue in the right way and at the right time, and focus on the issues that most demand board oversight.
  • Think strategically about branding and brand management. Brand discussions are tied inextricably to discussions about strategy and markets. Therefore, the board’s focus should be directed to strategic oversight rather than to the tactical, day-to-day nuances of managing the brand or brand portfolio. For example, one company conducts a two-day strategy retreat where directors and senior management focus on important questions about what the future looks like, the pain points that present opportunities, what the company is doing to face the future confidently, and the adjustments necessary to the strategy. Debates about strategic direction incorporate discussions about the company’s markets, key differentiators, and brands.
  • Measure the contribution of branding to shareholder value. The level of investment in the company’s brands, the return on those investments, and the process for monitoring each brand’s performance are worthwhile topics on the board’s agenda. How is the company measuring the return on investment (ROI) and sustaining and increasing the contribution of branding to shareholder value? ROI can be difficult to measure because customer loyalty, which helps to promote stable cash flow over time, is an integral component. That said, the math underlying the cost of winning new customers versus that of retaining existing customers is not difficult to understand. Neither is the contribution of effective brand management to reducing the volatility associated with future growth expectations and economic downturns.
  • Be involved in discussions about new branding opportunities and building value from acquired brands. How does management decide whether to build or buy a brand to diversify the brand portfolio? This conversation can evolve into a mergers and acquisitions (M&A)-type dialogue that, if the transaction is significant, should take on all characteristics of board M&A oversight spanning the pre-acquisition, acquisition, and post-acquisition integration phases of the process. If the company is acquisitive, the board should understand the possible strategic contribution of acquired brands when approving the company’s strategic plan. The board may also want to become familiar with the M&A pipeline and the potential targets in management’s line of sight. If brand acquisitions are an integral part of the strategy, directors need to ensure that the management team includes individuals with the requisite skills to execute transactions and integrate acquired brands into the company’s portfolio.
  • Oversee the management of how risks impact branding. There are many risks to consider with respect to brand image. Risk management is an important skill from a branding standpoint because severe unmitigated risks can erode the value of a brand if there are persistent headlines about a high-profile crisis (e.g., data breaches, pervasive quality failures, corruption violations, litigation, and egregious financial restatements). In addition, when there is a re-branding with a new “look and feel” to the brand, a thorough search related to the proposed brand name, word marks, logos, tag lines, and other intellectual property (IP) should be conducted to ensure the new brand is unique and does not infringe on another company’s rights. As the initial years of using a new brand are a period in which opposition can be raised, an effective search process is a prudent investment to undertake before the company spends heavily on the roll out and advertising campaigns. Once a branding architecture is established and protected by trademark, there is a need to monitor and protect the brand from other users to avoid dilution.
  • Periodically evaluate the board’s experience and diversity. Directors with a background in marketing and/or experience with brand-driven organizations are more likely to be comfortable inquiring and raising issues about management’s branding process. Even though industry experience helps, this is an area where perspectives outside the industry may contribute even more value. As in other realms of oversight, the more diverse the board members’ experience and backgrounds, the healthier the debate leading to a more robust branding strategy.

An important closing comment: The board can help temper the propensity of an aggressive management team to develop or acquire new additions to the brand portfolio. Management must have the capacity to manage new and acquired brands to deliver to ROI expectations. The board can help management frame a realistic portfolio diversification strategy. Then, it’s up to management to execute.


Jim DeLoach is managing director with Protiviti, a global consulting firm. 

Directors Assess Long-Term Election Implications

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This is the second post in a series addressing the short- and long-term impacts of the 2016 presidential election. Read the first post here.

Directors gathered to discuss the impact of the recent presidential election on November 16, 2016 with audit and risk professionals from accounting firm EisnerAmper. While immediate-term changes were pressing on the minds of directors, they also discussed strategies to address societal and business challenges that coalesced around the following topics.

Can Corporations Bring Back Modern Manufacturing Jobs?

Directors were skeptical that the type of manufacturing jobs that have fueled American economic growth since the end of the second World War would ever return—and asserted that changes in trade agreements may directly impact the ability to create jobs.

peter-bible

Peter Bible

EisnerAmper Chief Risk Officer Peter Bible outlined how the developing administration of President-elect Donald Trump could affect the ability of American companies to export their goods. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “is basically on hold now” said Bible. “He wants tariffs on China and Mexico, wants to renegotiate NAFTA, and reconsider the U.S.’s involvement in international trade agreement.” Bible also pointed out that the president can act unilaterally on trade agreements, thus negating congressional checks on trade decisions.

Jill Wittels, chair at eMagin Corp., voiced concern about the pace at which companies could replace factories to offset the impact of tariffs and build more jobs for Americans. “Imposing currency restrictions and tariffs on goods coming in from China, South America, or other parts of Asia would be highly disruptive,” Wittels said. “You don’t instantly create replacement factories in the U.S. at a comparable cost.”

robert-klatell

Robert Klatell

Robert Klatell, chair of TTM Technologies, concurred. “Realistically speaking, there is not that much flexibility. We cannot create in the United States the scale of manufacturing that exists in China,” Klatell said. “We don’t have the people or the capital to do it. We’ve rarely had a government willing to support manufacturing the same way that China has in the past 10 to 15 years.”

William Leidsdorf, director at Icahn Enterprises, offered a different viewpoint. “I think you have to look at how Congress may change or water down the president’s decisions,” Leidsdorf said. Trump “is a businessman. He’s a pretty good negotiator. He’s going to go in [to the presidency] and say he’ll do a lot of things and then negotiate.”

Educating the Workforce

Re-educating the American workforce has been a ubiquitous topic at roundtables co-hosted by NACD throughout 2016. This event was no exception.

sharon-manewitz

Sharon Manewitz

A vigorous discussion about the modern workforce was ignited when Carol Robbins, principal of financial services strategic advisory group CER Consulting, cited the invention of a garment-sewing robot as a groundbreaking technology likely to replace countless garment manufacturing workers around the world. Sharon Manewitz, principal and executive director at Manewitz Weiker Associates, a firm that consults with struggling companies, responded: “But who will make the robots? Will they be made here? We need corporate America to help educational institutions change the nature of education in America” to meet the demands of a knowledge-based economy.

The ability of the workforce to be retrained for modern jobs, and how automation will continue to disappear unskilled and lower-skilled positions, was discussed at length. Klatell, however, looked to the future. “Some people won’t make the transition, so we should be focusing on their children,” Klatell argued. “Hopefully, we can get their kids through school with a more meaningful education to make them more employable.”

Laurie Shahon, president of Wilton Capital Group, placed a board lens on some companies’ struggle to fill open positions in certain fields. “Human capital is an issue boards have to deal with,” Shahon said. “We see jobs available in financial services and other industries, but they can’t be filled because there aren’t sufficient qualified people to fill them. The board can and should present alternate cases in its strategy planning to address these changes.”

Deregulation Fallout

If Trump makes good on his campaign promises, deregulation is expected under the new administration and the forthcoming Republican majority congress. How long, though, can directors anticipate deregulated policies to last? Bible pointed out that the current administration might attempt to press through lingering Dodd-Frank provisions. However, he warned that deregulation could cause disruption. “These things are deeply rooted, with a lot of capital behind them,” Bible said. “You can’t just say ‘poof—gone.’ It’s impossible.” Practices that companies have implemented as a result of post-financial crisis legislation [such as the Dodd-Frank Act of 2012] are likely not to disappear as governance best practices because companies invested time, energy, and money to comply with them.

Meanwhile, directors in the room considered what impact deregulation might have on enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and other international business policies by the Department of Justice. Andrea Bonime-Blanc, founder of GEC Risk Advisory, reminded attendees that enforcement of the FCPA, the False Claims Act, and other laws has been on the rise lately. “People are asking, ‘What’s going to happen with FCPA enforcement?’” Bonime-Blanc asked. “Companies can’t just say ‘oh, let’s stop worrying about bribery.’”

Bible responded: “I believe that the FCPA will continue to be enforced as a worldwide standard, and that the new administration’s focus is going to be on executive compensation and on market regulation. I don’t think there will be an increase or a decrease in enforcement.” If anything, Bible indicated that directors should be concerned about the risk of tax repatriation from companies that have moved their headquarters offshore. “Is everyone familiar with how the overseas tax issue works?” Bible asked. “There is $2.6 trillion in money offshore, and $500 billion of that is held by tech companies. There are drives to get that money back into the U.S. economy that can be done without addressing the entire tax structure.”

Don’t Give Up on Culture of Inclusion

The social unrest incited or revealed by the vitriolic presidential election was discussed in the context of the culture of inclusion and tolerance that their companies have invested in building for decades. Aside of the moral imperative felt by many attendees, the disruption of hard-won corporate culture by internal or external actors could present a reputation risk to the company.

Wittels noted that a popular American shoe company had been endorsed by an incendiary website littered with forms of hate speech after a senior manager at the shoe company stated that it felt the country was moving in the right direction under the incoming president. While the company released statements strongly stating its commitment to principles of inclusion, “there are comments about boycott,” Wittels said. “This is a real reputational risk, and a risk with consumers, that could instantly in this communication age go viral and affect the bottom line.”

Klatell returned to the question of the board’s responsibility to ensure that the CEO, his direct reports, and management across the organization are responsible for maintaining a culture of respect, dignity, and inclusion. In the face of employees who may be looking to throw principles of inclusion out of the door, Klatell said: “I’d hope that most companies would stand up and say ‘No, this is what we stand for, and this is how we behave.’”

To see the full list of participants, please click here

At Roundtable, Directors React to Trump Election

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While President-elect Donald Trump worked last week with his transition team from the Trump Tower, directors met just blocks away at the Harvard Club of New York City, to address how in the aftermath of his election boards should begin preparing for what could be sweeping regulatory, tax, and social change.

(Left to right) Robert Klatell, Steven Kreit, and Laurie Shahon

(Left to right) Robert Klatell, Steven Kreit, and Laurie Shahon

Leading the discussion were EisnerAmper’s Chief Risk Officer Peter Bible and Steven Kreit, an audit partner with the firm. While the directors disagreed on the order and priority of policy changes, there was consensus around one point: Uncertainty will rule. Bible and Kreit suggested directors focus on in the near term and shared recommendations directors might take to remain agile in the face of politically driven risks.

How can a director prepare? Boards must engage deeply in strategy in the coming months. Anthony Buonaguro, president of the New Jersey NACD chapter and director of Enclave Homeowners Association, ignited a debate on whether or not boards will develop investment strategies focused on continued investment abroad.

Anthony Buonaguro

Anthony Buonaguro

“It resonated with me that we’re facing several years of uncertainty,” Buonaguro said. “Is this going to make boards more conservative? Usually there are two ways that people handle uncertainty: forge ahead as usual, or freeze. If it’s the latter, it’s not good for the economy or stocks. What are boards supposed to do to revamp strategy?” Kreit answered: “You have to put pen to paper and identify scenarios, then plan for them. Will you hit the scenario that happens? Possibly—or not. But if boards don’t strategize, they’re not going to get anywhere.”

NACD Directorship Publisher Christopher Y. Clark asked participants to suggest calls to action. Shaun Higgins, director of Aryzta AG and Carmine Laboratories, reiterated the importance of establishing strong enterprise risk management (ERM) practices. “I think you go into the board meeting and make strategic planning your number one ERM priority,” Higgins said.

Andrea Bonime-Blanc

Andrea Bonime-Blanc

Andrea Bonime-Blanc, CEO, founder, and director of GEC Risk Advisory LLC, jumped in: “I think the answer is to know what your top strategic risks are that need to be focused on.” Regarding specific risks, Bonime-Blanc said that when assessing the election’s implications, “We must pick the top five risks to integrate into business planning and factor U.S. geopolitical risk into our own strategic planning in a way that we never have had to before.”

The EisnerAmper hosts shared their near-term advice. “I can’t find a better reason for your companies to have ERM systems and processes in place,” Kreit said, noting that this is not the time for “mail-in” board members.

“I think this is a great time to start thinking about whether the people you have in the boat with you are the people you want to have in the boat with you,” Kreit said.

To see the full list of participants, please click here

What We Know

Kreit addressed what can be readily understood from the election. “There’s talk about what is going to happen, but no one really knows,” he said. “Board members should really be prepared for anything. Start thinking about some of the concepts Trump has been talking about, what some of his main areas of focus have been.” Work with management to address how the following, possible policy changes might impact business:

  • Anticipate inflation and its impact on cash flow and management, equity valuations, and borrowing abilities. While an initial jump in equity markets was seen, according to Bible, “the debt market got $1 trillion knocked out of it,” a sign of anticipation of inflation. Companies should begin scenario-planning for changes in borrowing ability.
  • Expect early review of tax policy. The dominance of the Republican party across Congress and the executive branch indicate the probability of perhaps even speedy tax reform.
  • Repeal or replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Some changes will come to the policy, and companies should be prepared to address its impact on their workforce.
  • De-regulation and repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act. Bible and Kreit anticipate the repeal of at least some Dodd-Frank provisions, and, at a minimum, a review of leadership at the Consumer Financial Protection Board.
  • Changes are coming to trade. One of the major planks in the Trump platform was a general desire to repeal trade agreements and impose tariffs on China and Mexico, as well as opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Bible and Kreit underscored the fact that one of the American executive branch’s unilateral powers is to control foreign commerce, which could lead to trade wars “that could trigger a recession,” Bible cautioned.

Kreit also outlined the timeline of key power changes in the White House and Congress:

  • December 19, 2016: The Electoral College convenes to vote.
  • January 3, 2017: The 115th United States Congress convenes.
  • January 6, 2017: Congress declares the president-elect.
  • January 20, 2017: Presidential inauguration marks the beginning of the Trump administration.
  • March-September 2017: Congress anticipated to debate raising the debt ceiling.
  • September 30, 2017: The U.S. government’s fiscal year ends, opening the door for Congress to address budgetary and fiscal matters.

These dates could serve as important milestones for developments impacting their companies.

“Back when we were determining a topic for this discussion, one thing I think we could all agree on was that this election could change the course of the country—and, potentially, the world,” Bible said in summation. “I felt very strongly that we should have this type of dialogue for one reason, and that’s because board leadership is essential for success. It’s a brave new world.”

A second post reporting from this roundtable addresses longer-term concerns raised by directors. To continue reading, click here