On the morning of Tuesday, October 14, 2014, a group of Board Leadership Conference attendees joined Alan M. Klein, Partner, Simpson Thacher; Jamie S. Moser, Partner, Joele Frank; and moderator Chris Ruggeri Principal, Deloitte for a power breakfast session entitled “Balancing Shareholders and Capital Markets”.
It is well known that there has been a rise in shareholder activism over the last few years. There are more than 400 activist funds today with more than $100 billion under management. If viewed as an asset class, activist funds are a top performer. Money flows to where it can generate the largest return, and activist-backed funds have flourished. In turn, panelists observed that this has emboldened shareholders of all stripes. In their quest to have a more prominent voice in how companies are run, these investors have changed the dynamics of company-shareholder interaction.
There are many different kinds of shareholders ranging from professional, established investors to newer, smaller entrants into the market. Moser believes that some larger organizations that tend to maintain long-term positions in companies can be considered activists as well. While they prefer not to run campaigns on their own, they feed ideas to others who will. Klein noted, “In a sense these ‘long only’ funds have outsourced their activism”.
Panelists noted that activist shareholders don’t pick targets lightly. They spend a significant amount of time drilling down into companies, and have a surprising depth of knowledge. As such, it would be a mistake to disregard them or view them as superficial. Nevertheless, there is often a mismatch between the way those who run companies view their businesses and the perspective of many activists.
Governance issues can be used as part of a shareholder’s demands. Although they are not typically the crux of an activist fight, these issues can become part of the story and set the tone. For example, panelists cited topics such as related party transactions or sluggish board turnover as “low hanging fruit” for shareholders. Even if these issues have been properly disclosed, a shareholder may use them to put the company on the defensive.
On the other hand, some investors – particularly the more well-established fund – ask for reasonable conversations with the board and management. Panelists observed that if directors can demonstrate to them the validity of the current plan and why their thesis is wrong, some investors may listen or even back off. That being the case, engagement is extremely important.
It is critical that directors understand the perspective of the company’s shareholders. The first question Moser asks a company is, “When’s the last time you spoke with your top 10 shareholders?”
Further, the board should engage with shareholders for the first time outside proxy season, when the discussion is often centered around voting. Then, if a proxy contest starts, the company can reply “our board has been speaking directly with shareholders; we’ve been active and engaged.” Meetings between the board and investors should demonstrate transparency and openness. Directors can simply ask investors, “what’s on your mind?” Of course, panelists noted that it is important to remain conscious of Regulation FD; avoid the discussion of material items in a one-on-one setting.
Boards can also go beyond annual “deep dives” to ensure the current strategy is still viable. For example, Klein suggested that boards invite a banker to give a presentation, valuing the strategic plan and showing how it stacks up to strategic alternatives. If the board has conducted this type of analysis, they are more able to speak to the current strategy’s strengths and how it will produce the most value for the company. It is also important that the strategic plan for the company is communicated in the most compelling way possible. “The first three-quarters of any ‘fight letter,’” Moser noted, should be about strategy – how your strategy provides more value than what the shareholder is proposing.”
Activist Investors on the Board
Finally, the panel discussed how boards can work with new activist directors once elected to the board. Klein noted that most activist situations today end in a negotiated outcome: Either a proxy fight doesn’t start, or the fight may end before it ever gets to a vote. Typically, as the result of a negotiation, the shareholder ends up with one or two seats. If these new directors can make their case in a logical manner, a fresh perspective may prove beneficial for a board.
Ultimately, panelists agreed that there has been a sea change regarding how companies and their shareholders interact. To the question of whether activism is good or bad, the answer is “yes”– it depends on facts and circumstances.
Ever since the rise of capitalism in post-feudal Europe, people have predicted its self-destruction. Private creation and ownership of wealth carries risks, and these risks have been spotted by advocates and enemies alike. Free-market proponent Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations warned against the dangers of separating ownership and liability in joint-stock companies. A century later, in Das Kapital, Karl Marx, a foe of capitalism, said capitalism would fail due in part to the inevitable decline of profits over time. And at the turn of this past century, capitalist icon and financier George Soros wrote of the “capitalist threat” in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, predicting that uninhibited pursuit of self-interest without concern for the common good would lead to a breakdown of the free-market economy.
In more recent times, however, we have not needed books or articles to sound the alarm. The current realitiesof persistent recession and excessive regulation say it all. Clearly, capitalism is under siege and we, its practitioners, are its only hope.
Fortunately, there are several existing communities devoted to this noble cause. One is NACD itself. At our national headquarters and in our chapters, we at NACD believe the organization is helping directors do their jobs well, which, in turn, strengthens companies and the economy.
But NACD is not alone in its dedication. A number of movements have emerged with the express purpose of saving capitalism from both itself and overregulation. One of the newest and fastest-growing is “conscious capitalism”—a movement that challenges business leaders and indeed all stakeholders to rediscover and live their companies’ true purpose—even while creating long-term wealth for owners.
The phrase was coined by Muhammad Yunus, who received a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank, a provider of micro-loans. The term caught on quickly. Kip Tindell, CEO of the Container Store, and John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, co-founded Conscious Capitalism Alliance in 2007, which would join with an institute to become Conscious Capitalism Inc.(CCI).
The Conscious Capitalism movement, via CCI, has grown in less than half a decade to become a convening force—one strong enough to tear me away from my office! Last month I served on a panel at the Fourth Annual Conscious Capitalism Conference at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. The event focused on the importance of “love and care” in the workplace, along with similar topics, including the board’s role in corporate culture, the theme of my panel.
The conference brochure advised me that “conscious businesses have distinctive cultures that help to sustain their adherence to their higher purpose and their orientation towards maintaining a harmony of interests across stakeholders. Conscious cultures are self-sustaining, self-healing and evolutionary.” So far so good!
I assumed my purpose was to suit up, show up, and “carry the flag” for corporate directors. I could just picture myself as being the only “suit” among a sea of social activists and rising-star millennials, being a lone voice explaining that directors do care. In preparation for the panel, I had come up with what I call the 5 Cs:
code (help develop the code of conduct)
CEO (pick the company leader and successors with an eye to culture)
compensation (compensation committee sets incentives for nonfinancial and well as financial results)
controls (audit committee ensures compliance with laws, the code of conduct, and any other norms)
composition (nominating and governance committee selects the board, which then sets the tone at the top through all of the above)
But as it turns out, although I did intone my 5 Cs, I didn’t have to do much explaining about how the boardroom works. Directors and business VIPs were everywhere in the crowd of over three hundred—including some with strong NACD credentials.
Day 1 featured former Medtronics CEO Bill George, who co-chaired the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Executive Compensation, as a keynote panelist on the theme of love and trust in business.
On Day 2, the director community was also in evidence. The moderator of the corporate culture panel, Deborah Wallace, is an NACD Fellow, and her panel included NACD’s most recent Director of the Year, Jenne Britell, chair of United Rentals. Another director on the panel, Ralph “Bud” Sorenson, is the chair of the nominating and governance committee of Whole Foods. The conference also featured several notable CEOs, past and present (not only Tindell and Mackey, mentioned earlier, but also Ron Shaich, founder and co-CEO of Panera Bread; and Doug Rauch, former CEO of Trader Joe’s and current CEO of CCI).
Coming all the way from Australia was Ian Pollard, a prominent member of the Australian director community, active with the Australian Institute of Corporate Directors. And I couldn’t resist giving a shout-out to Steve Jordan, director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center. (BCLC advances businesses’ social and philanthropic interests through a variety of programs, including corporate citizenship awards and a disaster help desk that empowers businesses to help communities when natural disasters strike.) Like yours truly, Steve is a member of the advisory board of the Caux Round Table, which deserves its own full-length blog post—coming soon.
This star lineup told me that corporate America is already engaged in social responsibility, already devoted to making capitalism sustainable for the long term. Why else would such respected directors be there? And I noticed some knowing nods of agreement from the audience when I discussed the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the standard for reporting on company accomplishments in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) realm—or “sustainability” for short. At NACD, we’ve been keeping our members in the know about such issues—which we will cover at our Board Leadership Conference in October 2012. As usual, our speakers and panels on sustainability-type issues will draw an appreciative crowd.
But Conscious Capitalism runs deeper than simply preaching to the choir about the importance of social issues. According to CCI co-founder Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism has four defining characteristics: “First is a higher purpose. There needs to be some other reason why you exist, not just to make money. Second is aligning all the stakeholders around that sense of higher purpose and recognizing that their interests are all connected to each other, and therefore there’s no exploitation of one for the benefit of another. The third element is conscious leadership, which is driven by purpose and by service to people, and not by power or by personal enrichment. And the fourth is a conscious culture, which embodies trust, caring, compassion, and authenticity.”
Ideally, these values permeate the conscious corporation at every level, including all its employees. Keynote speaker Singh Kang, general manager of the Taj hotel in Boston, gave a good example. Taj is owned by the Tata Group, an $80 billion Indian conglomerate known for its benevolence to employees. Kang was general manager of Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai during a terrorist attack on November 26, 2008, referred to as India’s 26/11. During the crisis, he stayed on duty, focusing on safety for all as his employees tried to protect guests, even taking bullets for them. Eleven employees died in the attacks. Their families received generous, lifelong survival benefits from their company, returning loyalty for loyalty.
This was Conscious Capitalism in action. These loyal employees and their equally loyal employer will remain forever etched in my mind, inspiring me to continue defending and protecting our economic system—along with the positive values it can foster.