For the 1,200-plus directors convened at this year’s NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. had words of advice that ranged from improving time management to establishing a Tobin-like tax on financial transactions. The nation’s leading jurist on corporate matters also cautioned against using electronic devices during board meetings for unrelated matters because that information may one day be discoverable in court.
Interviewed on Tuesday, Sept. 29, by NACD President Peter Gleason, Strine was at his provocative best. The proliferation of technology in the boardroom, Strine observed, may lead to an unintended consequence: the ability to discern just how engaged directors are and by what in board meetings. Strine warned of the possibility, and even the probability, of a shareholder suit that alleges inattention and seeks to support that allegation with a review of the director’s online activity when in board meetings—measuring just how much time was spent looking at material on the board portal versus sending e-mails, text-messaging family or friends, or playing fantasy football.
Boards also need to assess whether they are using their time to best effect. “There are no disciplined studies about how boards should be scheduled and what you do in certain committees,” Strine said. “The pattern is that if something is required legally or by statute, then that tends to get done first. A real challenge is to think like business people about your function as a director and how you use your time, and [recognize] that it reflects the priorities that you (as a board) set.” Strine challenged directors to set “a board budget of hours.”
Strine repeated a suggestion he has made previously that U.S. tax policy be adjusted to include a so-called Robin Hood or Tobin tax. Such a tax is named for the late Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist James Tobin, who in 1973 recommended a levy on short-term currency swaps in order to thwart speculation. A similar tax on stock trades, Strine maintains, would discourage short-term fund-hopping and generate new revenue.
Strine took issue with the voting practices of some large asset managers, noting that the sheer volume of votes created by shareholder proposals and the numbers of companies in each fund make informed voting impossible. Even the most “rational” investors, such as Fidelity Investments and the Vanguard Group, tend to vote their funds in one direction for the sake of expedience, he said. (See related content:Taking the Long View with Bill McNabb.) “It would be good for index funds to have their own voting policies. Why is the index fund voting the same way as the dividend fund?” Strine asked. “Why?”
One of the CEO’s most important jobs is to develop the next generation of leadership, Strine reminded the assembled directors, and boards should have opportunities for regular contact with up-and-comers.
Strine also recommended that boards consider the benefits of adopting a forum-selection bylaw. The inclusion of such a bylaw would allow corporations to determine where court cases are adjudicated when suits cover more than one jurisdiction. The state of Delaware in May enacted an arbitration law that is intended to provide speedier, more cost-effective dispute resolution as long as one of the companies in the dispute is domiciled in Delaware.
One of the few downsides to board service is the exposure to liability that directors of all corporations potentially face, day in and day out, as they perform their fiduciary duties. The chance of being sued for a major merger decision is now 90 percent; but that well known statistic is just the tip of an even larger iceberg. The Court of Chancery for the state of Delaware, where some one million corporations are incorporated (among them most major public companies), hears more than 200 cases per year, most of them involving director and officer liability. And given the high esteem in which Delaware courts are held, these influential D&O liability decisions impact the entire nation.
Why did we get involved? Since its founding in 1977, NACD has striven to serve members in many ways. Through research reports, webinars, and live events, we provide directors with the information, insights, and networks they need to become effective board leaders. Yet there is another important way in which NACD has been helping directors over the years. From time to time, when directors express concerns about pending policy matters, we amplify those concerns to the powers that be—including all three branches of the federal government as well as state courts, particularly Delaware’s. In this way, we can be the “voice of the director.”
In our Rural/Metro brief, we spoke on behalf of the directors in this case (who, because they had settled out of court, could not directly represent themselves); far more importantly, however, we spoke on behalf of all directors in every state, addressing the legal principle at issue. We urged the Delaware Supreme Court to reverse Chancery’s finding that Rural/Metro’s directors had breached their fiduciary duties when they approved the company’s sale. NACD believes the Court of Chancery’s decision may expose directors of Delaware corporations to an unreasonable risk of litigation and personal liability for good-faith decisions made on the basis of their reasonable business judgments and in consultation with expert advisors.
Will our line of reasoning in the Rural/Metro amicus brief prevail? Whatever the outcome, NACD’s messages is likely to keep Delaware’s courts focused on standards of good faith rather than an ideal but unreachable goal.
In this regard, we can take heart from precedent. The Rural/Metro friend-of-the-court brief was the second one NACD has filed in recent years. The previous amicus brief, written in 2008 and presented by the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP, addressed the issue of indemnification in the matter of Bohnen v. Troy Corp. 962 A.2d 916 (Del. 2008). NACD asserted that the indemnification protection of former directors should continue past their years of service in legal matters that involved those same years.
Initially, the court could not consider our brief for technical reasons. However, NACD’s position was ratified in 2009 when, in response to concerns expressed by various parties including NACD, the Delaware legislature amended Section 145(f) of the Delaware General Corporate Law. As revised, Section 145(f) provides that a director’s right to receive indemnification or advancement pursuant to a company’s charter or bylaws generally “shall not be eliminated or impaired … after the occurrence of the act or omission that is the subject of the … indemnification or advancement.”
Even now the issue of indemnification remains current. Late last month, in the case of Blankenship v. Alpha Appalachia Holdings Inc., C.A. No. 10610-CB (Del. Ch. May 28, 2015), the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld and clarified the rights of former directors and officers to receive advance defense costs when they are named in litigation connected to their past board service. As stated in a recent article from Gibson Dunn, “This decision reaffirms the strong protection of director and officer indemnification and advancement rights under Delaware law.” The decision in this case cites Section 145 of the Delaware Code more than a dozen times, which demonstrates that NACD is truly making a difference for directors and the companies they serve.
According to Confucius, one should “study the past if you want to define the future.” With that in mind, President and CEO Ken Daly led the session to officially kick off NACD’s future-defining initiative with panelists that have a storied history in the world of governance. The panel comprised Raymond Gilmartin, former president and CEO of Merck & Co., lead director at General Mills, and the newest member of NACD’s board of directors, and Myron Steele, Chief Justice, Delaware Supreme Court.
Based on the observation that capitalism is undergoing a profound shift as a result of shareholder activism, technology, and regulatory activity, work to define and shape NACD Directorship 2020 has been underway for several months. Starting this spring, NACD held three events to discuss and hone the direction of research topics in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Three areas came to the forefront: information flow, performance metrics, and disruptive technologies. For recaps of these sessions, visit nacdonline.org/directorship2020.
Changes in the Boardroom
According to Steele, the most significant changes in the boardroom have been the shift in dynamic of ownership from retail to institutional investors, and the dominance of independence in the boardroom. In the past, the majority of investors were retail, now 60 to 70 percent of stock ownership is in the hands of institutional investors.
As a result of Enron and WorldCom, Sarbanes-Oxley required the board to become more independent than ever before. And yet, as Chief Justice Steele observed, without an empirical study to support this requirement, the legislation missed the mark. Of the 17 directors on Enron’s board, 15 were independent and it “still resulted in a massive failure of corporate governance.”
In his remarks, Chief Justice Steele stressed his belief that regardless of who comprises the shareholders, authority, balanced with accountability, rests with directors. “It is still fundamentally the responsibility of directors to manage the corporation with oversight, loyalty, and care. Also the underlying dynamic has changed, the authority and accountability of directors has not.”
TSR and Short-Termism
Continuing off a theme that began last night with keynote speaker Raj Sisodia, Gilmartin addressed the increasing focus placed on generating short-term quarterly results. Maximizing shareholder value above all else has reinforced practices that can be detrimental to society. Although some practices, such as laying employees off, are sometimes required, they are currently being used with a frequency that destroys long-term value and the future survival of an institution.
But directors have an opportunity to change this. NACD Directorship 2020, according to Gilmartin, “allows an opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom that has developed over the last few years.”
Innovation and Risk Taking
Both Chief Justice Steele and Gilmartin emphasized the need for innovation and risk-taking in boardroom culture. In addition to using incentive systems that focus on the creation of long-term value, Gilmartin suggested using the company’s ability to innovate as a performance metric.
Chief Justice Steele addressed the increasingly litigious nature of directorship, which as Ken Daly noted has become, “not if you’ll be sued, but when you’ll be sued.” According to Chief Justice Steele, the business judgment rule is alive and thriving. Directors should feel free to take the necessary bold steps to create economic value. “Society is dependent upon a board being empowered to take risks on behalf of shareholders—that is what builds the economy.”