Category: Corporate Governance

The M&A Litmus Test: Part 4

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Today is the penultimate day of your M&A Litmus Test, so we’ll continue by testing your board’s…

…Info Flow.

How good is your information flow? For the board, knowledge is not merely a source of power; it is the very key to effectiveness. The following wisdom is adapted almost verbatim from the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Director Liability.

When it comes to M&A information, flow is critical.  The type, quantity, format, timing, and source of the information that fuels board knowledge will vary from board to board and will also change over time for a particular board. It will also vary among board members, who have different levels of experience and expertise with different topics.

Information flow is critical for directors with respect to capital allocation decisions—in particular, mergers and acquisitions. This area requires special attention to the long-term interests of the corporation and the ways in which management’s interests may affect transactions. As the report noted, the board and management need to regularly discuss the opportunities for and threats to the company, even in the absence of any planned or foreseen transactions, so that directors have an understanding of the business context in which these issues may arise.

Depending on the size and business context of the company, notes the report, directors should periodically receive information related to, and discuss with management, the following:

  • Comparative studies and analysis concerning whether the company would be more viable by merging with, or entering into alliances with, another candidate, or standing alone;
  • Possible acquisition candidates. When discussing the fulfillment of certain of the company’s business strategies, such as entering into new lines of business, directors should receive information on possible alternatives, such as an acquisition or strategic alliance, to achieve the same objectives; and
  • The merger activity of competitors, including the impact of recent activities on the company’s market share. Competitive analysis as to other suitors for the same potential acquisition candidates might also be warranted.

Maintaining an up-to-date understanding of these issues will help directors to remain prepared for the time when management actually proposes a transaction. This is particularly critical for directors of public companies, who should understand the company’s plans and legal options for responding to unsolicited takeover offers.

In evaluating a particular transaction, notes the Report, directors should seek specific information about the price, timing, and certainty of the transaction, and should be proactive in overseeing negotiations. Directors should understand how the transaction will be financed, and the projected financial impact on the company under reasonably likely scenarios. Where the sale of the transaction warrants it, directors should seek independent financial advice from outside experts to consider together with management’s financial assessment.

Directors should also obtain a high-level analysis of the merger documentation, including an understanding of the most important representations, covenants, and indemnities contained therein and their application to the company and the transaction. In addition, directors should receive input from market and investor relations experts about the best manner in which to position the transaction and the likely reception from investors and creditors. As with any other matter before them, directors should crucially evaluate all the information they have obtained and arrive at an independent assessment instead of relying exclusively on management’s views.

Directors should also be alert to differences between management and shareholder interests in negotiating a particular transaction. For example, shareholders will be far less interested than managers in knowing who will continue to work for the merged company and with what responsibilities. These employment issues are important but they should not override concerns about long-term returns to shareholders.

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The M&A Litmus Test: Part 3

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Today is Day Three of your M&A Litmus Test (three down, two to go!), so we’ll continue by testing your sense of…

Strategy.

Does your board know its role in strategy? NACD has been emphasizing the importance of board involvement in strategy since time immemorial.  Most recently, NACD, with the help of wise counsel (thank you, Ira Millstein and Holly Gregory of Weil Gotshal), boiled down governance guidance from boards, shareholders, and management into ten Key Agreed Principles, including Principle VII: Attention to Information, Agenda & Strategy. We declared that “Governance structures and practices should be designed to support the board in determining its own priorities, resultant agenda, and information needs and to assist the board in focusing on strategy (and associated risks).”

So true! The Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on the Role of the Board in Corporate Strategy provides specific guidance:

 

  • Boards should be constructively engaged with management to ensure the appropriate development, execution, and modification of the company’s strategy.
  • The nature and extent of the board’s involvement in strategy will depend on the particular circumstances of the company and the industry in which it is operating
  • While the board can—and in some cases should—use a committee of the board or an advisory board to analyze specific aspects of a proposed strategy, the full board should be engaged in the evolution of the strategy
  • Moreover, strategy development should be a cooperative process.
  • Management and the board should jointly establish the process the company will use to develop its strategy, including an understanding of the respective roles of management and the board.
  • Management and the board should agree on specific steps for strategy development.
  • To participate effectively in the strategic thinking process, boards should be prepared to ask incisive questions—anticipating, rather than reacting to, issues of major concern.

So, what does this have to do with M&A? Here’s your answer (with help from the McGraw-Hill M&A Series that yours truly coauthors).

Buy Strategy

By being actively engaged in the formulation of strategy, boards will typically already have some involvement in considering possible acquisitions, since all acquisitions should be consistent with a company’s strategy.

The extent of the board’s involvement in a proposed transaction (for example, questions of disclosure, financing, pricing, structuring, and due diligence) will vary depending on the size of the acquisition and the risks that it may pose. If a very large company regularly buys small companies in its industry and has already developed a process for finding, acquiring, and integrating these small transactions, boards don’t have to focus on the details of any particular transaction. They can and should, however, periodically review the entire merger process, from strategy to integration, in the context of strategy opportunities, attendant risks, and operational implications, to make sure that the process is working.

Sell Strategy

Selling is a big decision, whether or not a company is private or public. Back during World War II, my dad founded a research company, which he sold after twenty years for one million dollars—in paper. The disastrous experience forced him to launch the publication, Mergers & Acquisitions, in 1964—and it’s still going strong. For public companies, the negotiation is even more critical, involving not only an entrepreneur’s wealth, but a host of fiduciary and disclosure considerations.

The board of directors of a public company being acquired via a tender offer must be mindful of its fiduciary responsibilities under state corporate law. Traditionally under state law, as represented by Delaware law and the Model Business Corporation Act, the directors’ fiduciary duty is to shareholders. In the landmark case of Revlon Inc. vs. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc. (1986), the court described the role of the board of directors as that of a price-oriented “neutral auctioneer” once a decision has been made to sell the company.

Whether buying or selling, don’t let M&A transactions trigger micromanaging on the part of the board. Directors can help management achieve greater effectiveness. Individual board members may have expertise in various phases along the M&A route, and can help improve the process. Management would be wise to take full advantage of this expertise on an as-needed basis. Major transactions merit formation of an independent committee of the board to analyze the value of the transaction with the help of an independent third party, who can render a fair opinion. But don’t leave valuation up to the experts; boards can take an active role in determining the value of the company they are buying or selling. A great source for that knowledge is the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Performance Metrics, co-chaired by John Dillon and Bill White. Also, there are numerous good books on corporate valuation. (I know because I just coauthored one with Bob Monks and the worthy competition could well kill us!)

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The M&A Litmus Test: Part 2

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Today is Day Two of your M&A Litmus Test, so we’ll continue by testing how well you know your …

…Fiduciary Duties.

Do your directors truly understand their role as fiduciaries? Corporate directors have duties of care and loyalty under state law, and these duties apply to the merger context. (The overarching duty of good faith—basically meaning integrity—need not be discussed here.) The duty of care requires that directors be informed and exercise appropriate diligence and good faith as they make business decisions and otherwise fulfill their general oversight responsibilities. The duty of loyalty requires that directors act in the best interests of the corporation rather than in their own interests.

When reviewing plans to buy another company, sell a company unit, or merge with another company, the board needs to exercise proper oversight of management (duty of care) especially in issues of strategy, pricing, and compliance with various legal obligations, such as disclosure obligations.

The board also needs to exercise independence (duty of loyalty). It can do this by maintaining its independence, and by appointing a special committee of the board composed entirely of independent directors to review a particular transaction.

One director who appreciates the importance of fiduciary duties in mergers is NACD Advisory Board member and HealthSouth director Charles M. Elson, who directs the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. Recently we discussed the following question: What are the most important cases alleging violation of fiduciary duties in a merger? Two of his top picks were Revlon and Smith v. Van Gorkom.

Here are case summaries, according to Charles:

1. Revlon Inc. v. McAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc., Del. Supr., 506 A.2d 173 (1986). The court held that once the sale of a company has become inevitable, the directors of that company must seek to maximize the sale price for stockholders’ benefit.

In June, 1985, Pantry Pride approached Revlon to propose a friendly acquisition. Revlon declined the offer. In August, 1985, Revlon’s board recommended that shareholders reject the offer. Revlon then initiated certain defensive tactics. It sought other bidders. Pantry Pride raised its bid again. Revlon negotiated a deal with Forstmann Little & Co. that included a lock-up provision. Revlon also provided Forstmann with additional financial information that it did not provide to Pantry Pride. Eventually, an increased bid from Pantry Pride prompted an increased bid from Forstmann Little. The new bid was conditioned upon, among other things, the receipt by Forstmann Little of a lock-up option to purchase two Revlon divisions at a price that was substantially lower than the lowest estimate of value established by Revlon’s investment banker. It also included a “no shop” provision that prevented Revlon from considering bids from any third party. The board immediately accepted the Forstmann Little offer, even though Pantry Pride had increased its bid.

The questions before the court were: 1. whether the lock-up agreements were permitted under Delaware State law and 2. whether the Revlon board had acted prudently.

The Delaware Supreme Court held the following:

  • Lock-ups and related agreements are permitted under Delaware law if their adoption is untainted by director interests or other breaches of fiduciary duties. The actions taken by the directors in this case did not meet that standard.
  • Concern for various corporate constituencies is proper when addressing a takeover threat.
  • Proper concern for multiple constituencies is limited by the requirement that there be some rationally related benefits accruing to the stockholders, and there were no such benefits in this case.
  • When the sale of a company becomes inevitable, the duty of the board of directors changes from preservation of the corporate entity to maximization of the company’s value at a sale for the stockholders’ benefit. (This has come to be called the “Revlon doctrine.”)
  • The board’s actions are not protected by the business judgment rule.

2. Smith v. Van Gorkom, Del. Supr., 488 A.2d 858 (1985). The business judgment rule fails to protect directors who make uninformed judgments.

Shareholders brought a class action against the board of directors of Trans-Union Corporation, alleging that the board was grossly negligent in its duty of care to the shareholders for recommending that the shareholders approve a merger agreement at $55 per share. Although the price per share was well above current market values, the shareholders alleged that it was inadequate. The Delaware Court of Chancery granted the directors summary judgment, and the shareholders appealed. The Delaware Supreme Court indicated that it would closely scrutinize the process by which the board’s decision was made.

Historically, courts generally did not interfere with the good faith business decisions of a corporate board; however, this case eroded that principle, and the court embarked on a road of increasing judicial scrutiny of business decisions. The court struck down the long-accepted practice of affording corporate directors the almost ironclad presumption that, in making business decisions, the directors act on an informed basis. Instead, it held that the determination of whether the business judgment of a board of directors is informed turns on whether the directors have essentially followed certain procedures to inform themselves prior to making business decisions. The court went on to say that there is no protection under the business judgment rule for directors who have made uninformed judgments.

Words to the wise from an experienced director!

Are you ready for Day Three?

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