Making the best of shareholder activism

Navigating the shareholder spring.

Imagine the scene. You’re ready to sleepwalk your way through the yearly AGM ritual, you’re expecting a few shareholders to show up purely for the sarnies and the most exciting part of your day will be deciding what to wear. All of a sudden, reality breaks in and remuneration is in the cross hairs. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) issues a red top alert, ISS (Institutional Shareholder Services) issues a "vote against" recommendation, your shareholders are emboldened by the shareholder spring and vote against the remuneration report. Press coverage is destructive, you face public humiliation and although the vote isn’t binding, there’s so much pressure on you that you become yet another victim of anger about boardroom pay, another name in the hall of shame.

Sound familiar? Ask Sly Bailey of Trinity Mirror or Andrew Moss of Aviva, who are now seeking employment. Or Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP or Ralph Topping of William Hill, both of whom had their pay packets pummelled by shareholder anger.

Smaller companies have also been engulfed by this fury and are, in many respects, even more vulnerable. Cairn Energy took a roasting with 67 per cent votes against and 10 per cent abstentions on its pay report. AIM company Central Rand Gold was rocked by a 75 per cent revolt against its pay policy. Small cap Pendragon faced an ABI red top alert and an embarrassing climb down after a "no" vote.

That was the Shareholder Spring of 2012.

Shareholder votes on pay may only be advisory but directors who don’t listen to the message risk the ultimate sanction of being voted out. And it’s not just votes against which matter. Abstentions are often used to show a yellow card which directors should read as a clear signal to get round the table and talk to investors.

Remuneration consultants may be having a feeding frenzy advising on pay policy but the key area under the spotlight right now is the communication disconnect between companies and their shareholders.

Help is at hand

Investor activism is a way of shareholders flexing their muscles and demanding that you engage. Companies large and small should take to heart the need to talk to and listen to their shareholders so that they don’t end up with battle lines drawn, leadership resignations or picking up the pieces afterwards. Nobody wants to be hauled over the coals in public.

It can be tough being a CEO or an FD. You have to run the company, make hard decisions in a difficult economic climate, get your teams to implement them, deal with multiple claims on your time and somehow still find time to keep your investors happy. There are only 24 hours in a day and if you’re a smaller quoted company, it’s likely that your investor relations team is CEO and FD, both of you running at full stretch with no investor relations officer to support you.

The good news is that help is at hand. CEOs and FDs who want to avoid the sapping skirmishes of the shareholder spring can use a five-piece investor communications kitbag to put themselves on the front foot, selecting tools based on the amount of time available. Forward-planning helps smooth the way and reduces the risk of a public drubbing. And, it gives you a fabulous opportunity to bring your shareholders on side as cheerleaders for your company.

Tool #1 - Shareholder engagement

Dialogue matters. Planned, long term engagement puts companies in the driving seat. Regular dialogue with shareholders creates an atmosphere of understanding and builds trust; it enables directors to inspire confidence in the company and in the integrity of the executive team as you set expectations and educate investors about the value drivers of your business.

ABI director general Otto Thoresen told a recent Treasury Select Committee that company engagement with shareholders is “beginning to change but it’s not uniform and not fast enough”. Companies who only communicate when they have to are missing out on a great opportunity. Let’s face it, if you bump into someone you hardly know each year at an AGM and they ask you to lend them £1,000 for a business you know nothing about, you wouldn’t do it. If you meet a contact on a regular basis who tells you about their business in a way that excites and interests you, explains its strategy, prospects and progress against plan, then if that person asks you to lend them £1,000, there’s a higher chance that you’ll do it.

The reporting calendar provides the perfect framework for shareholder engagement. Quarterly results and interim management statements are part of a regular reporting cycle, giving you the opportunity to showcase your company to the market and helping reduce share price volatility.

Tool #2 - Perception study

Everybody wants to know what other people think of them and companies are no different. If directors want to manage their company’s profile and valuation, it’s essential to understand shareholders’ opinions about the company, the leadership team and the strategy so that you can ensure no nasty surprises at a vote.

John McFarlane, chairman of Aviva, lights the way. As he picks up the pieces in the wake of his former CEO’s resignation, his message to shareholders of 5 July recognises how important it is to find out what investors think about a company. McFarlane emphasises the importance of communicating and of listening when he says “over the past few weeks, I have met with our major shareholders and, in addition to their disappointment over our share performance, I believe there are legitimate concerns”.

Companies must communicate with buy side shareholders, listen to them and understand them, preferably before things get sticky. Even for companies with a good record of active shareholder engagement, a perception study is a powerful tool because it enables the board to take stock of the company’s current positioning in the eyes of the investment audience and it drives out those areas which need to be focused on in their IR strategy. It comes into its own when a board is unsure of where shareholder sentiment lies in the months ahead of a vote and wants to test shareholder mood, with time to act on the findings.

Tool #3 - Engagement with voting agencies

As the time of a vote draws near, companies may be blindsided by proxy voting recommendations. Proxy voting agencies are a section of the market many directors are not aware of and which require a nuanced understanding. They exist in the middle ground between a buy side shareholder and that shareholder’s vote.

Take the case of William Hill, which faced a difficult vote on its CEO’s retention package. Chairman Gareth Davis commented, "We consulted with the majority of our major shareholders and most recognised the importance of what was being put in place for William Hill's future. Whilst many of our largest shareholders supported the Remuneration Report resolution, one of the most influential vote advisory bodies recommended a vote against. It appears that a large number of shareholders across our share register voted in line with this recommendation.”

Savvy directors do not have to sit back and wait for a vote recommendation to happen to them: they can take the initiative and interact direct to ensure that the voting agency is in full possession of accurate information about the company and any areas of concern.

Tool #4 - Take it to the market

When a company has exhausted all other routes and still has concerns about shareholder understanding, then a board which is confident of its position can take it to the market. It can develop a tactical plan to proactively put information into the public domain to ensure full disclosure and transparency amongst all shareholders about any areas which may otherwise prove contentious. A recent example is easyJet, which earlier this year published and explained its remuneration policy and provided justifiable reasons for poor NED attendance at board meetings.

Tool #5 –Be ready for the future proposals on directors’ pay

The final tool in your kitbag is ensuring that your fellow board members are fully up to speed with Vince Cable’s proposals on directors pay. They are intended to address the disconnect between pay and performance and unsurprisingly they move the UK towards the US system of Say-On-Pay. Boards should proactively address the implications of these proposals as they start to firm up.

Conclusion

CEOs and FDs have some great weapons in their kitbag which they can organise like a military campaign to create winning strategies without hostilities. The messages emerging from the current levels of shareholder activism are that investor communication is all. Proactive, high levels of engagement and understanding are essential. Alignment of board strategy and shareholder interest is the guiding principle.

Rachel Maguire is the Investor Communications Director at Arko Iris. This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Rachel Maguire is the Investor Communications Director at Arko Iris

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.