Every corporate director knows the importance of M&A in the grand scheme of enterprise. With some 40,000 significant transactions announced annually, M&A is hard to ignore. Yet there are persistent risks that directors need to understand and mitigate through insightful questions and the dialogue that ensues.
Risk: Not all bets will pay off—at least not right away. Buying a company means placing a bet on the future. Given the level of unpredictability involved, there is some chance that the merger will fail to achieve its goals and/or fail to return incremental value to shareholders. It is commonly cited that “80 percent of all mergers fail” to add value; however, this percentage is an exaggeration. Event studies that compare transactions over time present a more realistic picture by showing that incremental financial value is not assured. For example, a study conducted by Kingston Duffie, publisher of the digital magazine Braid, indicates that companies actually lost 4.8 percent of their value when they spent at least five percent of their market capitalization on M&A during the 18-month period between October 2014 and March 2016. The interactive graphic included in the study shows differentiated performance during the period—high for Stamps.com Inc., medium for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., and low for EV Energy Partners. Your company could experience returns like any one of these.
Question for Directors:If this merger ends up havinga slightly negative result for our shareholders, what are the compelling strategic reasons to do this deal? When do we believe that deal synergies will materialize?
Risk: As a director, you could be named in a lawsuit—especially if you are voting on the sale of a company. In 2015, lawsuits were brought in 87.7 percent of completed takeovers. Although most cases settle, some do go to trial. In a trial setting there are four main standards for judging director conduct in the sale of the company, ranging from lenient to stringent:
The business judgment rule (trusting the decision as long as directors have no conflicts of interest and are reasonably well informed).
The Unocal standard (protecting anti-takeover moves only if a threat is real).
The Revlon standard (requiring an auction process once a company is in play).
Entire fairness (requiring both a fair price and a fair process).
In addition, when a company has promised its shareholders the right to have the company appraised, the court itself can impose its own valuation. In the original Dell go-private transaction, the court retroactively forced the company to pay aggrieved stockholders what the court deemed to be a missing increment to their premium.
Question for Directors:How can we find assurance that sale is in the best interest of the company and its owners, and that we have chosen an optimal price? How can we ensure that there is a litigation-ready record of our deliberations in this regard?
Risk: You could lose your board seat. According to a study by Kevin W. McLaughlin and Chinmoy Ghosh of the University of Connecticut, there is a higher rate of retention for directors from the acquiring firm (83 percent) following a merger, with the most likely survivors being individuals who serve on more than one outside board. Only about one-third of directors from the target board (34 percent of the inside directors and 29 percent of the outside directors) continue to serve after the merger.
This October, when Dell Inc. and EMC Corp. officially merge (assuming full regulatory clearance following their recent shareholder approval), many who serve on the EMC board may not be on the post-merger Dell board, including retiring EMC Chair-CEO Joe Tucci. When the merger was first announced last October, a spokesman for Elliott Management Corp. stated in a press release, “Elliott strongly supports this deal. As large stockholders, we have enjoyed a productive and collaborative dialogue with Joe Tucci and EMC’s Board and management. We are confident that this Board has worked tirelessly to evaluate all paths for the company and that today’s transaction represents the best outcome for stockholders.”
Saying goodbye to some or all of these incumbents this fall will seem to be an ironic outcome for creating value. And yet that is how it must be. Fiduciaries are not self-serving, but rather they serve on behalf of shareholders to promote the best interests of the company. As such, they need to be ready to move on when that is the best outcome for the corporation. Still, it is disruptive (and not always creatively so) to be a trusted voice of wisdom for the future one day, and mere history the next.
Question for Directors: If we sell this company and our board must merge or disband, who among us will be most useful in steering the combined company in the next chapter?
These are not easy questions. But by asking them, directors can help their companies beat the tough M&A odds.
Right now, M&A deal value is at its highest since the global financial crisis began, according to Dealogic. In the first half of 2015, deal value rose to $2.28 trillion—approaching the record-setting first half of 2007, when $2.59 trillion changed hands just before the onset of the financial crisis. Global healthcare deal value reached a record $346.7 billion in early 2015, which includes the highest-ever U.S. health M&A activity. And total global deal value for July 2015 alone was $549.7 billion worldwide, entering record books as the second highest monthly total for value since April 2007. The United States played an important part in this developing story: M&A deal value in the first half of 2015 exceeded the $1 trillion mark for announced U.S. targets, with a total of $1.2 trillion.
What is the board’s role in M&A?
This question can be answered in two words: readiness and oversight. At any given time, directors may need to consider either the sale of their own company or the purchase of another company. The key word here is may: nothing obliges a board to buy or sell if a transaction is not in the best interests of the company and its owners. After all, internal growth and independence usually remain options for a company under ordinary circumstances. Nonetheless, the board must still carefully weigh all opportunities to buy or sell as part of its routine corporate oversight.
Director responsibilities will vary by industry and company, but in general, corporate directors have duties of care and loyalty under state law which also apply in the M&A context.
Duty of care. 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. When reviewing plans to sell a company unit or to buy or merge with another company, the board must exercise proper oversight of management, especially with respect to issues of strategy and compliance with legal obligations such as mandatory disclosures. Pricing is another important consideration, and boards should be wary of claims of synergy. Academic studies offer mixed opinions on the track record for merger returns. Some find positive returns compared to non-acquiring peers (Petrova and Shafer, 2010), especially for frequent acquirers (Cass Business School and Intralinks, 2014). Other studies, for example a recent Fiduciary Group study citing McKinsey, claim a 70% failure rate.
Duty of loyalty. The duty of loyalty requires that a director act in the best interests of the corporation, including in the M&A context. Boards can maintain independence from an M&A transaction by appointing a standing committee of the board composed entirely of independent, non-conflicted directors to review the terms of a particular deal with the help of an independent third party, who can render a fairness opinion. (NACD submitted an amicus curiae letter on this issue in May 2015.) For a substantive legal discussion of the board’s role in M&A transactions, see this article by Holly J. Gregory of Sidley Austin, which appeared in Practical Law (May 2014).
Should the board be proactive in M&A, and if so, what are the most important questions directors should ask management about the opportunities and risks that M&A entails?
Even if your board is not currently considering an M&A transaction, it is important to remain aware of M&A as a strategic potential for the company, whether as buyer or seller. Here are some questions to ask, as noted in a recent article by Protiviti:
What potential opportunities and risks are involved in growing through acquisition?
Does M&A activity align with our current strategy and in what ways?
Looking at our portfolio of products and company units, are there any we might consider selling at this time? Why or why not?
Do we know the current market value of our company and its various units (if these are separable)?
What impact will a merger have on the boards of the combining companies, and how can boards weather the change?
M&A typically leads to a change in board composition, with the board of the acquired company (often referred to as the target board) usually being absorbed into the acquiring board. According to a study by Kevin W. McLaughlin and Chinmoy Ghosh of the University of Connecticut, among the mergers of Forbes 500 companies, most directors on the acquiring board (83%) stay on, while only about one-third of directors from the target board (34% of the inside directors and 29% of the outside directors) continue to serve after the merger. The study also shows that for acquiring company boards, outside directors who sit on more than one other outside board have a higher chance of remaining members. For both acquirers and targets, outside directors with CEO experience are more likely to keep their seats.
In the September–October 2014 issue of NACD Directorship, Johanne Bouchard and Ken Smith consider these findings and offer “Advice for Effective Board Mergers.” Their article outlines what boards can do to prepare for their own mergers. “Whether the board composition changes as a result of the merger or acquisition,” they note, “the board will benefit from holding a special session (or sometimes multiple sessions) to regroup and align before going into the first official board meeting.” At that first meeting they can get to know each other and the leadership team, check strategy, transfer knowledge, establish the role of the board chair, and “begin to function as an effective board.”
If the board is approached by management or a third party with a proposal to buy another company, what issues and questions should directors raise?
The extent of the board’s involvement in a proposed transaction will vary depending on the size of the acquisition and the risks it may pose. If a very large company regularly buys smaller companies in its industry and has already developed a process for finding, acquiring, and integrating these firms, boards need not 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 strategic opportunities, attendant risks, and operational implications, to make sure that the process is sound and functional.
The board’s primary role is to perform a reality check on management’s plans. A common claim in proposed mergers is that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts—what Mark Sirower of Deloitte calls “the synergy trap” in his classic book of that name. But the challenges of integration can often result in a loss of value, an issue that is explored in noteworthy articles from McKinsey and Protiviti. Drawing on these articles as well as the thoughtful questions raised in the Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Strategy Development, we have compiled a few queries the board may wish to put to managers and advisors.
Strategic considerations: Why are we considering this deal? If there are synergies, what hard evidence indicates that they will materialize?
Tactical considerations: What processes are now in place to create a pipeline of potential acquisitions, close deals, and execute the post-M&A integration?
Risk: What is the company’s current risk profile, and how does it correspond to the company’s risk appetite?
Capital and cost implications: Does our company have the cash on hand, projected cash flow, and/or available credit to commit to this transaction?
Operations: What changes will need to be made to the current operating structure and logistics following the merger? Will the supply chain be affected?
Talent: As we blend the human resources from the two companies, will we have the right talent to make this merger a success?
Technology: Is the company’s technology infrastructure capable of supporting the planned merger? How will the acquired company’s technology be treated post-merger?
Culture: Will the merger involve a blending of two different cultures? Do we foresee conflicts? If so, what are our plans for resolving them? Will there be a new postmerger culture? How can we ensure that all retained employees thrive in the new environment?
Monitoring Progress: What are the dashboard components for this deal? What elements will management monitor and how frequently? What dashboard metrics will the board use to measure the transaction’s overall success?
If the board is approached by management or a third party to sell the company or a company unit, what issues and questions should directors raise?
While many constituencies will have a stake in any proposed company sale (including notably employees), shareholders’ main focus will be price. The two critical legal considerations in this regard are the Revlon doctrine (for public companies) and fraudulent conveyance (for asset-based transactions, usually relating to private companies).
Revlon doctrine. In the landmark case of Revlon Inc. vs. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings (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. This Revlon “doctrine” or “standard” is alive and well even today. It was cited in the In re: Family Dollar Stores decision of December 2014, in which the court denied a stockholder action claiming that the Family Dollar Stores board had violated its Revlon duty by merging with Dollar Tree Inc. and by failing to consider a bid from Dollar General Corp. According to recent commentary by Francis G.X. Pileggi, a regular columnist for NACD Directorship, this case showed an “enhanced scrutiny standard of review for breach of fiduciary duty claims under the Revlon standard.”
Fraudulent conveyance. All company directors, whether of public or private companies, have a duty to make sure that the company being sold is represented accurately to the buyer. Otherwise they can be sued for approving a “fraudulent conveyance,” especially in an asset sale. Fraudulent conveyance lawsuits became very common during the leveraged buyout era of the 1980s, when acquirers that overpaid for assets using borrowed funds failed to generate returns and tried to recoup losses. This longstanding legal concept, like the Revlon doctrine, is still in current use and was recently cited in relation to the LyondellBasell merger, according to the law firm of Kurtzman Carson Consultants LLC.
In light of these concerns, questions to ask before approving the sale of a company or a division might include the following:
Are we certain that the sale is our best option? Have we assessed alternatives?
Under state law and/or our bylaws, do shareholders need to approve this sale?
Have we received a valid fairness opinion on the price?
Does this sale conform with the Revlon doctrine?
If this is an asset sale, are we sure that the assets have been properly appraised?
By asking the kinds of questions discussed in this brief commentary, boards can improve the chances that any M&A transaction, if pursued, will create optimal value for all participants.
As corporate fiduciaries, directors represent shareholders. But what should boards do when their sense of corporate good conflicts with resolutions advanced by specific owners? It is easy to say that boards need to do more to oversee risk, or to improve strategy, but without real-world testing, these statements become platitudes. Let’s take a look behind the headlines surrounding six recent proxy season conflicts—starting with five Fortune 500 companies (Bank of America, Darden, Staples, Target, and Walmart) and closing with a mid-market real estate investment trust (REIT) family (Ashford). In each case, boards have had to draw the line when confronted by special interests—while still respecting the rights and interests of all shareholders, including activists.
Please click on a company name above to go directly to the case study.
Bank of America: Of Accounts and Accountability
The issue. Is the board responsible for preventing honest administrative errors? On April 28, the Federal Reserve Board announced that it would require Bank of America Corp. to suspend planned increases in capital distributions and resubmit its capital plan. This requirement followed disclosure by Bank of America that the bank made an error in the data used to calculate regulatory capital ratios used in the most recent stress tests conducted by the Federal Reserve. The error was unintentional and, in comparison to the $2 trillion on the balance sheet, small. Nonetheless, the consequences became clear at the annual meeting on May 7, when the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) pension fund voted against four of five members of Bank of America’s audit committee. “The shortcomings in processes and risk controls underscore the need to make the necessary changes to ensure this sort of issue does not arise again,” opined CalSTRS spokesman Ricardo Duran in an e-mailed statement to the Wall Street Journal. Yet only a minority of investors joined the California giant. Apparently, most investors shared the views of William Smead, chief investment officer of Smead Capital Management in Seattle, who told the Wall Street Journal that the bank’s CEO Brian Moynihan “is a straight shooter” so his fund would “stay the course.” At the meeting, shareholders elected the full board for another term, approved all the management proposals, and rejected all four shareholder proposals; still, the CalSTRS campaign and commentary fired warning shots heard around the governance world.
The lesson. Boards cannot prevent error, but they can ensure quality of both processes and people. Clearly, this bank (like every institution) can continue to improve its controls. On the other hand, when management is willing to admit mistakes and act quickly, and the board has supported this progressive direction, it’s hardly time to change leadership.
Darden Restaurants (and Pfizer): The Right to Sell (or Buy)
The issue. Should cut-or-keep strategy be decided by boards and management or by shareholders? On May 16, Darden Restaurants Inc. announced a definitive agreement to sell its Red Lobster chain restaurant business and related assets, and assumed liabilities to Golden Gate Capital for $2.1 billion in cash. Red Lobster was failing and the board opted to sell it rather than turn it around. The deal will net Darden about $1.6 billion, of which approximately $1 billion will be used to retire outstanding debt. The deal is expected to close in early 2015 after necessary regulatory approvals. A week later, on May 22, Starboard Value, protesting the sale, put forward a full slate of candidates for Darden’s board of directors to be voted on at the company’s June 22 annual meeting. (Similar questions arose on the buy side at the Pfizer annual meeting on April 24 during the recently ended Pfizer bid for Astra-Zeneca.)
The lesson. Boards have a right to exercise judgment on whether a struggling company should turn around or sell off part of the business—or, conversely, whether a market leader should grow via merger. Analyst John Maxfield, writing about Red Lobster for the popular investment site Motley Fool, observed that turnarounds rarely succeed. He cited wise words from Warren Buffet, who wrote the following back in 1980: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.” The Darden board apparently believed that the fundamental economics of Red Lobster were unfavorable so they sold it. (On the buy side, the Pfizer board made a similarly justified strategic decision—not to let go of a division, but instead to chase, and subsequently let go of, a dream.)
Staples: A Matter of Discretion
The issue:Can the board justly exercise discretion in pay in order to retain executives during a turnaround? The Staples board believed so, and proceeded in good faith to pay accordingly, but shareholders disagreed. On March 3, the Staples board rewarded executives for their added workload in turning the retailer around by approving a “2013 Reinvention Cash Award.” The board also approved an extra reward cycle to retain executives and staff who had not received a bonus in two years due to dragging financials caused by the poor economy for consumer discretionaries. Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), a proxy advisory firm, urged investors to reject the plan in their advisory “say-on-pay” vote at the annual meeting on June 2. ISS carries considerable influence in the proxy policy-setting and voting processes, and in this case apparently they did, as a majority of shareholders (53.64%) voted against the Staples plan. At that same meeting, 50.66 percent of shareholders cast advisory votes to split the chair and CEO roles at the retailer.
The lesson. While directors should make every effort to comply with their policies when awarding pay, they should reserve and defend the right to exercise discretion; similarly, directors are the ones who should determine the independent leadership structure for their boards. When boards exercise compensation discretion, for example by making an award that did not appear in a plan, they need to clearly communicate early on their reasons for doing so. This is a key finding of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on Executive Compensation, convened in 2014, as well as previous BRCs on the topic. Communication, not compensation, may be the core issue here. (Then again, communication of any point requires two parties—the speaker and the listener. In some cases, however, it simply may be that shareholders are unwilling to hear management’s reasons for a nonroutine pay decision.)
Target: Expecting the Impossible?
The issue.If aboard knows that a particular risk exists and takes action to defend against it, are directors to blame if the defense does not function well enough to prevent harm? In mid-2013, anticipating hacker problems, Target began installing a $1.6 million malware detection tool made by the computer security firm FireEye; yet due to a break in the chain of alerts during the most recent holiday season, the defense did not work and Target suffered an attack at the height of the holiday shopping season. Subsequently—despite swift response to the problem (replacing the chief information officer and strengthening security)—ISS recommended that shareholders vote against 7 of the company’s 10 directors at the company’s June 11 annual meeting, urging rejection of the members of the audit and corporate responsibility committees. The day before the meeting, Luis Aguilar, a commissioner at the Securities and Exchange Commission, mentioned the Target incident in a speech at the NYSE, and observed that “effective board oversight of management’s efforts to address these issues is critical to preventing and effectively responding to successful cyber-attacks.” Shareholders did vote by a majority on June 11 to keep the full board, but concerns linger. More than 90 lawsuits have been filed against Target by customers and banks for alleged “negligence,” and they are seeking compensatory damages as well.
The lesson. The line between the board and management is still distinct, but it is no longer bright; it will vary by company, so it is up to each board to find it. IT risk oversight is not easy. NACD’s Director’s Handbook Series on Cyber-Risk Oversight recommends that boards approach cybersecurity as an enterprise-wide risk management issue, and encourages directors to understand the legal implications of cyber risk as they apply to their company’s specific circumstances. Boards can encourage them to build that arsenal. Meanwhile, boards can and should vigorously defend themselves against voting campaigns that would disrupt board continuity at the expense of various stakeholders, including not only shareholders but also employees and their communities.
Walmart: What Price Integrity?
The issue.Does the board have a right to invest heavily in building an ethical culture or should shareholders get more of that money? Sometimes it seems that boards are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. On June 6, Walmart shareholders voted to reelect the entire Walmart board, and to reject a proposal that would mandate a separate chair and CEO, among other votes. This vote occurred despite campaigns against the directors in March; both the CtW Investment Group (on March 19) and ISS (on March 25) issued reports critical of Walmart, recommending that shareholders vote against two existing directors, as well as the company’s executive compensation proposals. They claimed that the company failed to disclose information to shareholders regarding sums spent on investigations into alleged company violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In fact, Walmart did publish a global compliance report with details on its programs, so the main reason for the critique seems to be the amount of money spent on compliance. Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesperson, has assured the public that “[t]he board has authorized whatever resources are necessary to get to the bottom of the matter.”
The lesson. Boards have the right and, one might argue, the obligation to invest resources to ensure ongoing efforts to improve compliance and integrity. Global companies have many employees and agents to oversee. Policies can go only so far. Perhaps the best guidance here comes directly from the classic Delaware Chancery Court decision in the Caremark case (1996) in which Chancellor William Allen, finding in favor of a defendant board in an insurance kickback case, held that a board as part of its duty of care has an obligation to “exercise a good faith judgment that the corporation’s information and reporting system is in concept and design adequate to assure that appropriate information will come to its attention in a timely manner as a matter of ordinary operations.” If a board fulfills that requirement, its oversight should be praised rather than condemned.
Ashford: A Tale of Two REITs
The issue.Who gets to determine governance—the board or shareholders? The recent history of the Ashford REIT complex provides a real-world laboratory for the issue. It all started in February when the Ashford Hospitality Trust (AHT) board amended AHT bylaws to require board approval of any future bylaw amendments. (Previously, AHT bylaws could be amended by shareholders without board approval.) One reason for this amendment is that the AHT board wants the company to remain under the protection of the Maryland Unsolicited Takeover Act (MUTA). The AHT board also voted to increase the number of shares required to call a special meeting of shareholders. In response, ISS called on shareholders to withhold votes for all but one director at the annual meeting on May 13. At that meeting, all directors were voted in by a majority of votes cast, despite a high amount of negative votes for the targeted directors. Earlier, shareholders of an AHT spin-off, called Ashford Hospitality Prime (AHP), which is advised by AHT, approved two proxy proposals submitted by Unite Here, a union representing workers in the garment and hospitality industries. AHP shareholders voted by a majority of 68 percent to have the company opt out of MUTA—a result that the AHT board hopes to avoid. So far the board of AHT is holding firm in favor of takeover protections and remaining under MUTA protection, unlike its AHP spin-off.
The lesson. Within the bounds of legal compliance, governance is a responsibility of the board, not the shareholders. So when it comes to preserving corporate independence, boards need not give up their corporate shields just because activists accuse them of being too defensive. This may well be a case of rhetoric versus reality. When the MUTA was passed 15 years ago (in 1999), the Baltimore Business Journal hailed it as good for investors: “Corporate takeover bill protects stockholders,” read the news item. In an editorial detailing the law’s provisions to a painstaking degree, the Baltimore Business Journal concluded: Some public commentary on the takeover bill has mistakenly suggested that it takes away all obligations directors have to stockholders. To the contrary, unlike Pennsylvania’s corporate law, which is highly pro-management and provides no relief to investors or stockholders in Pennsylvania corporations, Maryland law now provides some increased procedural advantage to and greater flexibility for directors, while preserving the primacy of stockholder value and providing an escape valve from the most troubling provisions for future investors in Maryland corporations. It seems that with the passage of time, and inattention to statutory language, the anti-MUTA myth has risen again. We will watch this case for further developments.
These developments have involved different issues—financial planning, mergers and acquisitions, compensation, cybersecurity, internal controls, and takeover protection. Nevertheless, these developments point to the need for ongoing director educationon risk oversight in all of these areas, not just in a classroom, but also on the job, and with more active monitoring. These stories also show the value of understanding the evolving expectations of governance itself. As directors face increasing pressures to continually know more and do more, they can strive to improve, yet at the same time recognize the intrinsic limitations of the board’s role. Directors should also seek to provide investors with information on the context and rationale behind the board’s decisions, as part of the company’s overall shareholder engagement and communication program. This close look at current struggles has yielded important lessons—and guidance for an ever-challenging future.