Top 5 Things Shareholder Activists Need to Know

Steve Wolosky, Andrew Freedman, and Ron Berenblat are partners at Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP. This post is based on an Olshan publication by Mr. Wolosky, Mr. Freedman, and Mr. Berenblat. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Dancing With Activists by Lucian Bebchuk, Alon Brav, Wei Jang, and Thomas Keusch (discussed on the Forum here).

Nomination deadlines for the 2018 proxy season are fast approaching. Based on feedback from our shareholder activist clients and colleagues in the activism community, we are preparing for a very busy nomination season, which will begin to pick up steam in the next few weeks and continue into the new year. Drawing from our experience as the leading law firm to shareholder activists—including our involvement in delivering over 55 nomination letters during the past 12 months alone—and our views on current hot-button topics such as board diversity, global activism and the targeting of CEOs, Olshan’s Activist & Equity Investment Group presents you with its list of top 5 things activists should consider before nominating directors for the upcoming proxy season.

1. It’s Time to Diversify

We are beginning to advise our clients to include diversity as a key criterion in selecting their slates of nominees and, in the case of short-slate contests, identifying the incumbent directors they will seek to replace. Board diversity is currently one of the hottest corporate governance topics and will be highly relevant during the upcoming proxy season. In addition to highlighting the inequality engendered by the lack of diversity of current public company boards, there is abundant research showing a correlation between diverse boards and improved financial performance, corporate governance and accountability to shareholders.

As a result, numerous institutional investors have prioritized their efforts to foster greater diversity, particularly gender diversity, in the boardroom. Earlier this year, BlackRock stated that it will reach out to portfolio companies “to better understand their progress on improving gender balance in the boardroom.” Vanguard recently sent an open letter to public companies stating that over the coming years it will focus on gender diversity in the boardroom and that it “expect[s] boards to focus on it as well, and their demonstration of meaningful progress over time will inform our engagement and voting going forward.” State Street voted against the election of directors at 400 portfolio companies that it determined had failed to take adequate measures to address the absence of women in the boardroom. There is a high probability that one or more of these or other like-minded institutional investors will account for a meaningful percentage of the shareholder base in any domestic election contest initiated by an activist.

An activist’s likelihood of success in an election contest is inextricably tied to the qualifications and expertise of the activist’s director slate. Based on the unebbing wave of board diversity awareness and volume of research extolling the strengths of diverse boards, highly-qualified dissident nominees with diverse backgrounds not only improve the quality of the overall dissident slate—and are therefore more likely to be viewed favorably by shareholders—but are also more likely to be better positioned to advance the activist’s platform once elected to the board. For the same reasons, diversity should also be taken into consideration when evaluating which incumbent directors an activist may seek to replace in a short-slate election contest.

2. Beware of CEO “Bloodlust”

Departing from the early days of shareholder activism, there was a noticeable spike during the past year in the number of activist campaigns that sought the removal of members of their targets’ upper management, particularly CEOs. Elliott Management’s election contest against Arconic, which sought to hold CEO Klaus Kleinfeld directly accountable to shareholders, led to Kleinfeld’s departure during the late stages of the campaign. Pressure from Mantle Ridge resulted in the appointment of Hunter Harrison as the new CEO of CSX. After Marcato Capital ran a slate of directors at Buffalo Wild Wings and called upon the company to replace its CEO Sally Smith, Smith announced on the day of the annual meeting her intention to resign as CEO. Just six months later, Buffalo Wild Wings agreed to be acquired by Arby’s Restaurant Group for a hefty premium.

In a recently settled activist situation, Jeereddi Partners and Purple Mountain Capital initially nominated two director candidates for election at Tuesday Morning’s annual meeting, one of which was recruited specifically for the purpose of becoming the next CEO. Interestingly, in a communication to Tuesday Morning’s employees apprising them of the activist incursion, the existing CEO stated that the investor group’s tactic of seeking to replace him reflected a “new norm” of activism:

These activists also seek to have one of their candidates join the management team as CEO. This tactic used by activist investors is common in today’s market environment.

A Wall Street Journal article by David Benoit succinctly identified this trend in its headline—“Activist Investors Have a New Bloodlust: CEOs.”

Despite the growing number of activist campaigns targeting CEOs, activists should think long and hard before going for the jugular. While every situation is different, seeking to replace a director who is also the CEO (even in a short-slate contest) or calling for the ouster of a CEO as part of the activist’s platform in an election contest is still an aggressive strategy. Attempting to remove the principal executive officer of a company may not sit well with other institutional investors or the proxy advisory firms, depending on the facts and circumstances.

This topic was recently addressed by proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”) after one of the defense law firms publicly expressed its view that ISS should alter its analytical framework for reviewing proxy contests to take into account whether the dissident is seeking to replace a CEO/director. In commentary issued by ISS dismissing the need to change its analytical framework in this manner, ISS stated:

… the notion that ISS does not already view the targeting of a CEO as an unusual and significant factor—and thus worthy of careful consideration in a short-slate fight—would be a misrepresentation of our framework.

The removal of a CEO from a board represents a vote of no-confidence that carries further-reaching consequences than the removal of most other directors. However, in instances of demonstrably poor execution, operational issues, or undue management influence over the board, such targeting may be appropriate—provided that the consequent risks have been properly assessed.

ISS’ perspective on this topic is highly instructive and, in our view, should be applied broadly by an activist when evaluating whether to target a CEO. Activists should understand that the standard will be higher for obtaining shareholder support and ISS’ recommendation to remove the CEO from the board in an election contest. As ISS points out above, the facts and circumstances of a particular situation could make the targeting of a CEO appropriate, and hence a winning strategy for an activist. Nevertheless, activists should proceed with caution before going down this path.

3. Let’s Go Global

As the activism space gets more and more crowded in the U.S. as a result of an increasing number of activists and bloated war chests activist managers are tasked to deploy, opportunities abound in Europe, Asia and Australia. The corporate governance regimes of certain of these jurisdictions are actually more favorable to shareholders than in the U.S. and the breadth of legal and structural defenses that are commonly utilized by targets in the U.S. are not present in many of these countries. We would even characterize certain countries as “wide open” for shareholder activism. In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in and other government officials are actually inviting foreign shareholders to invest in South Korean companies and play activist roles in overseeing their investments as the administration attempts to promote a culture of accountability to foreign and minority shareholders that South Korea historically lacked.

Offshore campaigns recently commenced by U.S. activist titans are capturing headlines. Third Point is putting pressure on Swiss conglomerate Nestlé to improve productivity, divest non-priority assets and return capital to shareholders. Corvex Management successfully blocked Swiss chemical giant Clariant’s proposed merger with Huntsman. Elliott Management has multiple active situations in Europe, Asia and Australia.

These high-profile campaigns are not isolated incidents. Shareholder activists of all sizes and vintages are taking companies to task all over the globe. In fact, over 290 non-U.S. companies were publicly subjected to activist demands during 2017 (through October 31) according to Activist Insight Online. The action is not only in the U.S.

Activists who are willing to cast a wider net in evaluating potential situations may find prime opportunities abroad. Olshan has experience advising activists in Canada, Europe and Asia and has relationships with law firms, solicitors and consultants all over the globe who can advise on local securities laws, proxy mechanics and cultural considerations that are unique to each jurisdiction.

4. Don’t Go Overboard

Activists should make sure each of their director nominees complies with the “overboarding” guidelines of the two leading proxy advisory firms—ISS and Glass Lewis. Under the current ISS proxy voting guidelines, ISS will generally recommend a vote against or withhold from an individual director nominee who (i) serves on more than five public company boards, or (ii) is CEO of a public company who serves on the boards of more than two public companies (besides his or her own); provided that the negative vote recommendation will only apply to the CEO’s outside boards. ISS may give a positive recommendation for an overboarded nominee after he or she undertakes to gain compliance with the guideline by resigning from an existing directorship if elected at the meeting in question.

Under the Glass Lewis guidelines, Glass Lewis will generally recommend a vote against an individual director nominee who (i) serves on more than five public company boards, or (ii) is an executive officer of a public company while serving on a total of more than two public company boards. Glass Lewis may refrain from making a negative vote recommendation on overboarded nominees if provided with “sufficient rationale” for their board service.

Given the importance of obtaining ISS and Glass Lewis support in most election contests, it is critical that activists take measures to ensure that their nominees are not overboarded. This can be done by requiring prospective nominees to provide updated bios or resumes, including all current directorships and executive officer positions. This is typically covered by Olshan’s form of nominee questionnaire we recommend all our activist clients obtain from their prospective nominees prior to nominating. Nominees should also be made aware of the overboarding requirements and reminded to consult with the activist before accepting additional directorships or executive officer positions prior to the meeting date.

5. Sweat the Mechanics

Failure to pay close attention to the mechanics involved in the nomination process could allow the target company to gain the upper hand or even derail the activist’s campaign in its entirety. Activists who are in the process of evaluating a potential campaign should contact us early in the process so we can begin to identify and work through all the mechanics, which could be complex and involve more than just putting shares in record name in order to validly nominate.

Understanding the company’s advance notice procedures for nominating directors typically contained in the bylaws is critical from both a timing and strategic standpoint. Activists should not necessarily rely on any nomination deadline set forth in the prior year’s proxy statement as these deadlines are often erroneously calculated by the company under the advance notice procedures contained in the bylaws or confused with the Rule 14a-8 deadline due to sloppy drafting. Allowing us sufficient time to review the nomination procedures in the bylaws will ensure that everyone is working with the correct nomination deadline and monitoring the company’s public filings and press releases for the meeting date. This is critical as under most nomination procedures, companies have the ability to accelerate the nomination deadline by announcing a meeting date that is a certain number of days (typically more than 30 or 60 days) before the anniversary of the previous year’s meeting.

Companies are artfully expanding their nomination procedures in order to flush out activists earlier in the process and to make it more expensive for them to nominate. For example, there is a good chance the nomination procedures will contain a requirement that the dissident nominees complete and sign the target company’s director questionnaires for inclusion in the activist’s nomination package. If this is the case, we will need to reach out to company counsel in order to obtain the form of questionnaire prior to the nomination deadline. Getting us involved early can allow us to ensure that the company does not use the nominee questionnaire requirement as a defensive tactic. We are aware of companies whose nomination procedures give them up to 10 days to provide the form of questionnaire after one has been requested by a shareholder. For such companies, we would need to request the form of questionnaire more than 10 days prior to the nomination deadline in order to be in a position to receive the form of questionnaire and submit a complete nomination package prior to the deadline. Otherwise, the company would be permitted to wait until after the nomination deadline before providing a form of questionnaire, thereby preventing the activist from being in technical compliance with the advance nomination procedures.

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