Three Steps to Prepare for Shareholder Activism

Latham & Watkins, the law firm, provides this easy to read series of recommendations for dealing with increasing shareholder activism.  Other valuable articles for corporate executives and board members may be viewed at www.lw.com.

Three Practical Steps to Stay Ahead of Shareholder Activism

by Steven B. Stokdyk, Joel H. Trotter & Patricia Judge

Activist investors continue to shape corporate governance. Last year saw more than 300 activist proxy campaigns, proposals and contests. Activism-focused funds manage over $100 billion in assets.

In this climate, no company is too large to avoid activists’ influence. There is no guaranteed safety — not corporate governance, share price appreciation or outperforming peers. All companies should remain prepared for engagement.

Experience shows that preparation can make a decisive difference. Companies that establish and maintain a good reputation with institutional investors will have an advantage when interacting with activists.

To prepare effectively, we recommend three broad ongoing practices:

  • monitoring exposure to activists;
  • communicating with shareholders and analysts; and
  • planning for activist campaigns.

Monitoring exposure to activists

Companies should continually monitor available information to assess their exposure to activists:

  • Monitor outside groups, including the company’s peer group, sell-side analysts, proxy advisors, pension funds, activist investors, print media and online sources.
  • Understand institutional holdings and the relationships among the holders, especially those who may team up with others, by monitoring Schedule 13G, 13D, 13F and Hart-Scott-Rodino filings, parallel (wolf pack) trading and debt trading patterns.
  • Watch the proxy advisory firms and institutional investor groups, such as Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), Glass, Lewis & Co., the Council of Institutional Investors  and TIAA-CREF. Although ISS can influence up to 30% of the vote, some investors use ISS’s position only as a starting point. For example, institutional investors such as Fidelity and BlackRock have their own internal proxy departments.
  • Review corporate governance ratings, correct any inaccuracies and identify potential changes that could improve the company’s governance rating.
  • Maintain a feedback loop by monitoring earnings call participants, conference attendees, follow-up requests and other investor contacts, always seeking candid feedback and facilitating open communication.

Communicating with shareholders and analysts

Use inbound and outbound communication to build key relationships:

  • Use relationship building to keep your friends close and your major institutional investors closer. Engage regularly with both portfolio managers and proxy departments. Know institutional investors’ guidelines, key decision makers and how to reach them. Establish credibility with shareholders and analysts in advance.
  • Seek out inbound communication and candid feedback. Use ongoing dialogue to ensure that management and the board of directors understand investor sentiment.
  • Use outbound communication as part of a concerted communications strategy. Ensure that communications consistently describe the basic strategic message. Focus especially on relative performance, proactively addressing any shortfalls as compared to peers.

Planning for activist campaigns

Formulate a plan to prepare for an activism crisis:

  • Evaluate protections in the company’s charter, bylaws and applicable laws for potential measures that could be used in response to an activist campaign.
  • Develop and maintain a public communications plan, which should include steps for strategic outreach to the media, regulators, political groups and others. Keep these relationships current to facilitate public messaging.
  • Identify team members and have key players ready in advance to assist quickly in response to emergencies. Identify your lineup of counsel, investment bankers, proxy solicitors and public relations specialists.

Taken together, these three steps — monitoring, communicating and planning — offer concrete actions that companies can use to ensure their preparedness for an activist campaign.

Steven B. Stokdyk
steven.stokdyk@lw.com
+1.213.891.7421

Joel H. Trotter
joel.trotter@lw.com
+1.202.637.2165

Patricia Judge
patricia.judge@lw.com
+1.202.637.3352

M&A Defense – “Devil’s in the Details”

Dennis McCarthy – dennis@mbsecurities.com – (213) 222-8260

Roche’s hostile offer for Illumina is a great case study to follow up my post “M&A Defense Checklist” and to prove that old adage that “the devil’s in the details”.

The Roche hostile offer for Illumina highlights two of my points,

  1. Now there is higher risk of hostile activity for all companies.  Illumina, before the offer, was trading at 4x revenue and 14x EBITDA: not what you’d consider a low valuation target although its stock at $37.69 was below its 52 week high of $79.40.
  2. Companies should carefully review their M&A defenses to uncover and potentially fix any weaknesses before an aggressor uses them against the company.

As background on this case, after what appears to be a short courtship period, Roche launched a hostile tender offer to shareholders to buy Illumina at $44.50/share an 18% premium to Illumina’s closing price the day before the offer.  Roche also announced that it intends to wage a proxy battle which would result in its slate of nominees comprising a majority of the Illumina board.

In this post, I highlight key points from an impressive article entitled “The Chink in Illumina’s Defense” by Steven M. Davidoff, writing as The Deal Professor, a commentator for the New York Times’ “DealBook”.  The article speculates that Roche’s proxy battle strategy will likely include proposals to:

  1. Nominate board candidates for the 4 seats up for election this year;
  2. Propose a by-law amendment to expand the size of the board by two members to 11 and nominate those two board candidates; and
  3. Propose a shareholder vote to remove all of Illumina’s board without cause.

Illumina’s defenses include:

  1. Staggered board of nine members with only 4 up for election this year;
  2. Supermajority vote of 67% of all shares outstanding required to amend a by-law;
  3. Shareholders can’t call a special meeting;
  4. Shareholders can’t act by written consent; and
  5. Poison pill which had expired in 2011 but could be reinstated by board action alone.

Proving that time-tested maxim, “the devil’s in the details”, here’s what we might learn from issues with Illumina’s defenses that Roche may be exploiting according to “The Chink in Illumina’s Defense”.

  1. Certain key elements of Illumina’s defenses are contained in its by-laws, not as charter provisions.  A corporate provision contained in a company’s by-laws may be amended by shareholder action without board action.  In contrast, a provision in a company’s charter requires approval by both the board and shareholders.
  2. Illumina’s by-laws specify the size of the board which Roche is proposing to expand by two to eleven members of which Roche’s slate of 6 would constitute a majority. Shareholders can approve, albeit by 67%, this by-law amendments to expand the board without board approval.
  3. Illumina’s by-laws also permit removal of board members without cause upon approval by a simple majority of the votes cast at the meeting, a relatively low threshold.  Delaware law requires the provision for removal of board members without cause to be in a company’s charter so this provision will, no doubt, trigger litigation as to its validity and usefulness in Roche’s attack.
  4. Illumina’s advance notice provision for submission of proxy proposals to be included for consideration at its annual meeting requires only 90 days vs longer periods which are common.  As a result, Illumina has less time to respond before its annual shareholder meeting.

Subsequent to Roche’s offer, Illumina’s share price rose well above Roche’s offer price signaling that Wall Street thinks Illumina is worth more than Roche’s offer.  Also, Illumina reinstated its poison pill at a 15% threshold with updated definitions of beneficial ownership to include ownership through derivatives.

To read Roche’s offer letter to Illumina, click here or go to www.sec.gov for the recent documents filed under Illumina including its poison pill and various filings by both sides.

This is a valuable lesson for all of us, at Illumina’s expense.

M&A Defense Checklist

Dennis McCarthy

(213) 222-8260

dennis@mbsecurities.com

Well, no sooner did I post “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again” than I started getting requests for suggestions of what to include on a company’s M&A defense checklist.

You know, it’s simply good practice for a company to periodically review its M&A defenses.

But now, the task of reviewing a company’s M&A defenses takes on greater urgency.  The risk of a company getting an unsolicited offer is higher than usual now because many large companies are loaded with cash but short on revenue growth.

So what would I recommend for the checklist?

Please understand, I’m not necessarily recommending implementation of these provisions but rather suggest they be on your company’s M&A defense review list.

First on my list is a recent hot topic – proxy access rules and advance notice bylaw provisions.  Public companies should be aware of recent developments and consider updating to what’s known as “second generation” provisions.

Next on my list would be a couple charter provisions which slow aggressors.  These would be (i) restrictions on a shareholder’s ability to call a special meeting, and (ii) a prohibition on shareholder action by written consent.

Of course, we can’t forget the “poison pill” or shareholder rights plan.  While poison pills have declined in popularity over the last decade, we’ve seen several recent instances, Barnes & Noble, Airgas and Lions Gate, where a pill has played a key role in a company’s M&A defenses.

Even if you have a pill in place, there are a couple developments to note.  One development is the special purpose pill which, for example, may be used to dissuade a shareholder from triggering tax law change of ownership provisions which impairs use of a company’s net operating loss.  The second development involves expanding the definition of beneficial ownership to include sophisticated new forms of corporate ownership now available.

Another checklist item would be the classified or “staggered” board, where only a portion of the board members, typically a third, are up for shareholder vote each year.  This slows an aggressor’s efforts to change a board through a proxy battle.  A staggered board plus a pill is a powerful defensive combination.

Another defense provision is the supermajority vote which requires a high percentage of shareholders to approve an action, that is, once you’ve got your defense provisions in place.

In contrast, if your company permits cumulative voting, a small but organized minority shareholder group might be able to install a board member despite the group’s small ownership.

Certain states laws permit additional defenses or variations on these provisions.  For example, certain states permit what are known as constituency statutes which enable a board to consider the impact of an acquisition on constituencies including employees or the community, rather than just shareholders.  Depending upon your state, these extra features may be useful.

I would note here that some defense provisions can be implemented unilaterally by board action.  Others require shareholder approval which affects implementation feasibility.

In addition to these items, there are a number of tactical actions like stock buybacks and recapitalizations which can be used defensively in response to or to pre-empt hostile activity.

I recommend that a company set aside time at an upcoming board meeting for a review of its M&A defense provisions.  Company management, its attorneys, bankers and IR professionals can brief the board and make recommendations.

I can help your company to review its defenses in a timely and cost efficient manner. It’s better to be prepared.