The Dutch Stakeholder Experience

Christiaan de Brauw is a partner at Allen & Overy LLP, This post is based on his Allen & Overy memorandum. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Socially Responsible Firms by Alan Ferrell, Hao Liang, and Luc Renneboog (discussed on the Forum here) and The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance by Lucian A. Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita (discussed on the Forum here).

Recently, there have been significant developments towards a more stakeholder-oriented governance model, as evidenced by, among other things, the statements from the Business Roundtable and the World Economic Forum, as well as statements from institutional shareholders like BlackRock. Simultaneously, there has been increasing interest in re-evaluating the purpose of the corporation, for example in the UK and France. The Dutch stakeholder model has evolved over time into a truly workable model in a successful market-based economy. This model has proven to be attractive to US and other foreign investors in Dutch listed companies. The Dutch experience has some important lessons for those seeking to adopt a more stakeholder-oriented governance model. We have learned that there are three key requirements to make such a model work. These are: (i) embed a clear stakeholder mission in the fiduciary duties of the board, (ii) give teeth to that stakeholder mission, while creating appropriate checks and balances, and (iii) foster a stakeholder-oriented mindset and environment. Below, I offer some further insights into these lessons learned.

A brief history of the Dutch stakeholder model

The Dutch stakeholder model evolved after WWII. Many companies had become important institutions in their own right, with bigger businesses and more employees, whose interests became more important. In 1949, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the board should not only act in the shareholders’ interests. In 1971, the Dutch civil code was amended to reflect that the board must act in the interests of the company and its business. This amendment confirmed that boards should not only look at the interests of shareholders, but also of other stakeholders, including particularly employees.

Dutch boards had to understand, and then apply, this newly introduced stakeholder model, particularly when difficult choices between interests of different stakeholders arose. The big question, often referred to as the holy grail of Dutch corporate law, was what the duty to act in the interest of the company and its business really means. In other words, how should this guiding principle work in practice?

In the 1990s and 2000s, boards of Dutch listed companies, to varying degrees, followed the increasing focus on shareholders’ interests that generally prevailed in the US and many other developed countries. Shareholders were seen as primus inter pares. In practice, there was predominantly an “enlightened shareholder value” approach instead of a true stakeholder approach. Accordingly, the interests of stakeholders (other than the shareholders) were considered, but more marginally, and mainly to see if a certain strategic direction aimed at creating shareholder value would cause disproportionate harm for employees or other stakeholders.

The global financial crisis triggered the next step in the development of the Dutch stakeholder model. Today, the guiding principles of the model are based on the Dutch Supreme Court’s judgment in the seminal 2014 Cancun case and on the 2016 Dutch Corporate Governance Code. The 2016 Dutch Corporate Governance Code confirms that the company should aim for long-term value creation (no longer on long-term shareholder value creation). At the same time, the board should take into account the interests of all the stakeholders, including environmental, social and governance (ESG) and similar sustainability perspectives. The judgment in the Cancun case gave boards the overriding guidance to “primarily” promote the sustainable success of the business and avoid harm to stakeholders. In other words, a board’s primary duty is to pursue the strategic direction that will most likely result in long-term and sustainable business success. The principle is that the company’s shareholders, employees, creditors, suppliers, customers, and possibly communities and other company-specific stakeholders are best protected and served by remaining involved with a successful business. Shareholders will derive more value through share price growth, dividends, and, potentially, a takeover premium. Employees will have more job security and less chance of forced dismissals, benefit from better employment terms and career prospects. Customers, creditors, suppliers and others generally benefit from a more robust and successful business partner. Society benefits from the company achieving its ESG goals. The business benefits in turn, as stakeholders with a long-term commitment are more likely to make valuable contributions to the company and its business.

In addition to this primary duty and mission to find the right strategic direction for the business, as part of its consideration of the interests of stakeholders, the board must, as a general rule, seek to prevent disproportionate or unnecessary harm to any class of stakeholders. At the same time, it is recognized that sometimes harm to (a category of) stakeholders may be necessary for ongoing business success. Such harm, often with a short term impact, might include the loss of employment or shareholders losing out on a rejected takeover premium.

The Dutch stakeholder model continues to apply in takeover scenarios. This is contrary to the Revlon–duty applicable under Delaware law, under which the board must seek the highest price for shareholders once a company is in a (change of control) takeover scenario. The Dutch stakeholder model holds that the board should consider bona fide takeover proposals. Boards should determine whether the proposal represents a strategy for realizing sustainable success for the business, which is superior to the existing stand-alone strategy. For example, in a consolidating market, a takeover may be necessary for the company to remain competitive (as part of the consolidated group). If a takeover is the best strategic option, the board should then focus on the interests of all stakeholders, including seeking a fair price for shareholders, protecting employees’ jobs or—if job losses are inevitable—minimizing impacts on the affected through “social plans” that provide reasonable severance and other protections. In practice, stakeholders’ interests are protected in Dutch public M&A transactions through so-called “non-financial covenants” (e.g. to protect employment or require “social plans”), which are typically agreed as part of the merger agreement. These “non-financial covenants” very rarely form part of US transactions (but see, for an exceptional example, Unilever’s takeover of Ben & Jerry’s).

Lessons learned

The Dutch experience shows that the following lessons are key to make the stakeholder-oriented governance model work in practice.

Embed a clear stakeholder mission in the fiduciary duties of the board

To have a real stakeholder model, the board must have a duty to act in the interests of the business and all the stakeholders, not only the shareholders. In shareholder models there may be some room to consider stakeholder interests. For example, in Delaware and various other US states, the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders may be considered in the context of achieving overall long-term shareholder value creation. In US states with constituency statutes, the board’s discretion is preserved: the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders can be, but do not have to be, taken into account. A meaningful stakeholder model requires the board to act in the interests of the business and all stakeholders. This is a “shall” duty, in the words of Leo Strine and Robert Eccles (see Purpose With Meaning: A Practical Way Forward, Robert G. Eccles, Leo E. Strine and Timothy Youmans, May 16, 2020). Rather than allowing for the possibility that all stakeholders’ interests will be taken into account; it should create a real duty to do so. Since 1971, boards of Dutch companies have had such a “shall” duty to follow a stakeholder mission, similar to that of a benefit corporation in, for example, Delaware.

The stakeholder duty must be clear and realistic for boards in the economic environment in which they operate. To define the contours of such a mission in a clear and practical way is not easy, as the journey of the Dutch stakeholder model shows. Today, the Netherlands has a meaningful and realistically defined fiduciary duty for boards. The primary duty is to promote the sustainable success of the business, focused on long-term value creation, while taking into account the interests of all stakeholders and ESG and similar sustainability perspectives. These principles are broadly similar to the corporate purpose and mission proposed by Martin Lipton and others (see On the Purpose of the Corporation, Martin Lipton, William Savitt and Karessa L. Cain, posted May 27, 2020).

Critics of the stakeholder model sometimes point to the ambiguity and lack of clarity of such a pluralistic model. The developments of the Dutch stakeholder model since its inception show that a pluralistic model can work in practice. By now, Dutch boards’ overriding task is adequately clear and aligned with what is typically expected of a company’s executives: pursuing the strategic direction that will most likely result in long-term and sustainable business success. The Dutch stakeholder model also has a workable roadmap to deal with stakeholders’ interests, particularly if they diverge or cannot all be protected fully at the same time, which necessarily results in trade-offs between stakeholders. A realistic approach to governance acknowledges that a stakeholder model does not mean that boards can or should seek to maximize value for all the stakeholders equally and at the same time. It is simply unrealistic to simultaneously pay (and progressively increase) dividends, increase wages and improve contract terms, while also promoting the success of the business. The Dutch interpretation of the stakeholder model, as developed through practice over decades, boils down to the focus on the sustainable success of the business and long-term value creation. As said above, stakeholders are protected by the board’s duty to prevent disproportionate or unnecessary harm to any class of stakeholders. Boards should avoid or mitigate such harm, for example, by agreeing “non-financial covenants” in a takeover. This makes sense as a way to protect stakeholder interests in a realistic manner, much more so than merely requiring boards—without any further guidance—to create value for all the stakeholders.

A stakeholder-oriented model should also be modern and flexible enough to address and incorporate important developments. The Dutch model is especially well positioned to embrace ESG and similar sustainability perspectives. For example, the Dutch company DSM has successfully illustrated this, while being profitable and attractive for investors. There is growing appreciation that being a frontrunner in ESG is required for sustainable business success. In addition to the fact that ESG is required for continuity of the business model and can often give a company a competitive edge, stakeholders increasingly require it. Simply “doing the right thing”, as an independent corporate goal, is more and more seen as important by (new millennial) employees, customers, institutional investors and other stakeholders.

There is no standard test to determine whether a business has achieved sustainable success. There will be different ways to achieve and measure success for different companies, depending on the respective circumstances. Therefore, the test will always have to be bespoke, implemented by the board and explained to stakeholders.

The Dutch stakeholder model has proven to work quite well in times of crisis, such as today’s Covid-19 crisis, as it bolsters the board’s focus on the survival and continuity of the business. The board must first assess whether there is a realistic chance of survival and continuity of the business. If not, and if insolvency becomes imminent, the board’s duties transform to focus on creditors’ interests, such as preventing wrongful trading and the winding down or restarting of the business in line with applicable insolvency/restructuring proceedings. Driven by the economic reality and the need to survive, in times of crisis, boards typically have more freedom to do what it takes to survive: from pursuing liquidity enhancing measures, implementing reorganizations, suspending dividends to shareholders and payments to creditors and so on. The success of the business remains the overriding aim, and in some cases harm to one or more classes of stakeholders may need to be accepted. In addition, in a true stakeholder model, in times of crisis there may not be sympathy for corporate raiders or activists (so-called “corona profiteers” in the current case) who want to buy listed companies on the cheap. A just say not now defense in addition to the just say no defense will readily be available for boards who are occupied with dealing with the crisis and revaluating the best strategic direction. This idea that during the Covid-crisis protection against activists and hostile bidders may be needed seems to be understood as well by, for example, ISS and Glass Lewis, evidenced by their willingness to accept new poison pills for a one year duration (see, for example, ISS and Glass Lewis Guidances on Poison Pills during COVID-19 Pandemic, Paul J. Shim, James E. Langston, and Charles W. Allen, posted on April 26, 2020).

Teeth to protect the stakeholder mission and appropriate checks and balances

The Netherlands has adopted a model in which matters of strategy are the prerogative of the executive directors under supervision of the non-executive directors or, in the still widely used two-tier system, of the management board under supervision of the supervisory board. Similar to the discretion afforded to directors under Delaware’s business judgment rule, a Dutch board has a lot of freedom to choose the strategic direction of the company. In a dispute, the amount of care taken by the board in the decision-making process will be scrutinized by courts, but normally objectively reasonable decisions will be respected. In the Dutch model the board is the captain of the ship; it is best equipped to determine the course for the business and take difficult decisions on how to serve the interests of stakeholders. Generally, the board has no obligation to consult with, or get the approval of, the shareholders in advance of a decision.

At the same time, in recognition of the significant power that boards have in the Dutch stakeholder model, there should be checks and balances to ensure the board’s powers are exercised in a careful manner, without conflicts of interest and without entrenchment. Non-executive/supervisory directors will need to exercise critical and hands-on oversight, particularly when there are potential conflicts of interest. Further, shareholders and other stakeholders are entitled to hold boards to account: boards need to be able to explain their strategic decisions. Shareholders can use their shareholder rights to express their opinions and preferences. Shareholders can also pursue the dismissal of failing and entrenched boards. Boards need regular renewed shareholder mandates through reappointments. The courts are the ultimate guardian of the stakeholder model. The Dutch Enterprise Chamber at the Amsterdam Court of Appeals, which operates in a comparable manner to the Delaware Chancery Court, is an efficient and expert referee of last resort.

The stakeholder model should not convert to a shareholder model in takeover scenarios. The board should focus on whether a takeover is the best strategic option and take into account the consequences for all the stakeholders. In most cases, the best strategic direction for the business will create the highest valuation of the business. But, and this is a real difference with shareholder models, it should be acknowledged that the stand-alone (or other best strategic) option can be different from the strategic option favored by a majority of the shareholders and the option that creates the most shareholder value. This principle was confirmed by the Dutch Enterprise Chamber in 2017 in the AkzoNobel case.

A meaningful stakeholder model requires teeth. The right governance structures need to be put in place to create and protect the long-term stakeholder mission in the face of short-term market pressure. The reality—in the Netherlands as well as in the US—is that shareholders are the most powerful constituency in the stakeholder universe, with the authority to replace the board. In Dutch practice, various countervailing measures can be used to protect the stakeholder mission. A commonly used instrument is the independent protection foundation, the Dutch poison pill. The independent foundation can exercise a call option and acquire and vote on preference shares. It can neutralize the newly acquired voting power of hostile bidders or activists and is effective against actions geared at replacing the board, including a proxy fight. Once the threat no longer exists, the preference shares are cancelled. These measures have been effective, for example, against hostile approaches of America Movil for KPN (2013) and Teva for Mylan (2015).

Foster a stakeholder mindset, governance and environment

Perhaps the most important prerequisite for a well-functioning stakeholder model is the actual mindset of executives and directors. This mindset drives how they will use their stakeholder powers. Fiduciary duties—also in a stakeholder model—are “open norms” and leave a lot of freedom to boards to pursue the strategic direction and to use their authority as they deem fit. The prevailing spirit and opinions about governance are important, as they influence how powers are interpreted and exercised. As an example, the Dutch requirement that boards need to act in the interest of the company and its business dates from 1971, but that did not prevent boards in the 2000s from seeing shareholders as the first among equals. Today, the body of ideas about governance in the developed world is tending to converge towards stakeholder-oriented governance. This seems to indicate a fundamental change in mindset, not merely a fashionable trend or lip service. Board members with a stakeholder conviction should not be afraid to follow their mission, even if it runs counter to past experience or faces shareholder opposition. Of course, the future will hold the ultimate test for the stakeholder model. Can it, in practice, deliver on its promise to create sustainable success and long-term value and provide better protection for stakeholders? If so, this will create a positive feedback loop in which more boards embrace it.

Stakeholder-based governance models remain works in progress. In order to succeed in the long term, models that grant boards the authority to determine the strategy need to stay viable and attractive for shareholders. Going forward, boards following a stakeholder-based model will likely need to focus more on accountability, for example by concretely substantiating their strategic plans and goals and, where possible, providing the relevant metrics to measure their achievements. In reality, stakeholder models are already attractive for foreign investors: about 90% of investors in Dutch listed companies are US or UK investors. In addition, developments in the definition of the corporate purpose will further refine the stakeholder model. In the Netherlands, there has been a call to action by 25 corporate law professors who argue that companies should act as responsible corporate citizens and should articulate a clear corporate purpose.

To make stakeholder governance work, ideally, all stakeholders are committed to the same mission. It is encouraging that key institutional investors are embracing long-term value creation and the consideration of other stakeholders’ interests, for instance by supporting the New Paradigm model of corporate governance and stewardship codes to that effect. However, the “proof of the pudding” is whether boards can continue to walk the stakeholder talk and pursue the long-term view in the face of short-term pressure, either through generally accepted goals and behavior or, if necessary, countervailing governance arrangements. Today, it is still far from certain whether institutional investors will reject pursuing a short-term takeover premium, even where they consider the offer to be undervalued or not supportive of long-term value creation. Annual bonuses of the deciding fund manager may depend on accepting that offer. Until the behavior of investors in such scenarios respects the principle of long-term value creation, appropriate governance protection is important to prevent a legal pathway for shareholders to impose their short-term goals. Therefore, even in jurisdictions where stakeholder-based approaches have been embraced, and are actually pursued by boards, governance arrangements might need to be changed to make the stakeholder mission work in practice. Clear guidance for boards is needed on what the stakeholder mission is and how to deal with stakeholders’ interests, as well as catering for adequate powers and protection for boards.

The Dutch model, which requires a company to be business success-driven, have a “shall duty” to stakeholders that applies even in a sale of the company, and that recognizes that corporations are dependent on stakeholders for success and have a corresponding responsibility to stakeholders, has been demonstrated to be consistent with a high-functioning economy. By highlighting the Dutch system, however, I do not mean to claim that it is unique. For policymakers who are considering the merits of a stakeholder-based governance model, the Dutch system should be seen as one example among many corporate governance systems in successful market economies (such as Germany) that embrace this form of stakeholder-based governance. There is likely no one-size-fits-all approach; each jurisdiction should find the tailor-made model that works best for it, like perhaps the introduction of the corporate purpose in the UK and France. In any event, there is a great benefit in exchanging ideas and learning from experiences in different jurisdictions to find common ground and best practices in order to increase the acceptance and appreciation of stakeholder-oriented governance models.

US governance practices have been, and are, influential around the world. In the 2000s the pendulum in developed countries, including to some extent in the Netherlands, clearly swung in the direction of shareholder-centric governance as championed in the US. In the current environment, if the US system’s focus on shareholders is not adjusted to protect stakeholder interests, it may over time perhaps become an outlier among many of the world’s leading market economies that in one way or the other have adopted a stakeholder approach. Adjustment towards stakeholder governance seems certainly possible in the US, for example through the emerging model of corporate governance, the Delaware Public Benefit Corporation. The benefit corporation seems to have many if not all of the key attributes of the Dutch system and could provide a promising path forward if American corporate governance is to change in a way that makes the US model truly focused on the long-term value for all stakeholders. The question for US advocates of stakeholder governance is whether they will embrace it, or adopt another effective governance change, and make their commitment to respect stakeholders real.

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