If there is a single common denominator to many of the stories in this issue of NACD Directorship it is reason. And in matters pertaining to business disruptors, maintaining calm, cool objectivity is no easy task. Any discussion of this subject oftentimes elicits an emotional response. Disruption is typically considered a negative force, prompting apprehension and, sometimes, outright fear.
Take shareholder activism, which is a potentially disruptive force in any boardroom. Statistics tell part of how this story is playing out: The number of activist campaigns has increased 60 percent since 2010, according to Factiva, and activist funds control northward of $130 billion in assets, per Hedge Fund Research. Not so long ago, passive index investors like Vanguard depended largely on the proxy advisers to inform their voting, but that too has changed.
Corporate attorney Martin Lipton recently described a “new governance paradigm” by which major investors like BlackRock and Vanguard take their activism in-house, making our interview with McNabb ever more timely. “It is not likely that activism and short-termism will totally disappear,” Lipton wrote in a client memo in June and reiterated in a speech at the World Economic Forum in August, “but I’m comfortable that the influence of major investors will be more favorable to shareholders generally and to the nation’s economy and society, than the self-seeking personal greed of hedge fund activists.”
Today, Vanguard owns at least 1 percent of every publicly traded company in the Fortune 1000. What it desires is nothing less than long-term success for those companies. And, what could be more reasonable than that?
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.”