Photo by Martin Fisch
Photo by Martin Fisch

When you think of corporations, you think “maximize profits for shareholders”. This notion is being turned on its head as a growing sustainable business movement asks: “Can we look to factors in addition to profit to measure a company’s success?” More than thirty U.S. states and the District of Columbia have answered “yes” by authorizing a benefit corporation, or “B Corp” – a for-profit corporate entity, but one that seeks to positively impact society, the community, or the environment, in addition to generating profit. The concept is catching on internationally as well, with Italy the first country outside the U.S. to pass benefit corporation legislation.

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Benefit corporations fundamentally alter how a company is allowed to act. While the laws on benefit corporations differ around the country, model legislation is available. B Corps not only seek to create shareholder value, but also must balance social purpose, transparency, and accountability. A B Corp’s purpose is also to create general public benefit — for instance, a material positive impact on society or the environment. B Corps must publish annual benefit reports, made against an independent third-party standard, of their social and environmental performance, and often must file these reports with the Secretary of State. The benefit report includes a description of how the company pursed its benefit, hindrances faced in pursuing such benefit, and the reasons for choosing the specific third-party standard. For example, a company with an environmental purpose may choose to report against the standards set forth by the Global Reporting Initiative. Additionally, shareholders have a private right of action known as a benefit enforcement proceeding, in which they can seek to enforce the company’s mission.

In Florida, a B Corp’s articles of incorporation must state that the corporation is a benefit corporation to incorporate as such. Further, an existing corporation may amend its articles of incorporation to become a benefit corporation. Likewise, a corporation may terminate its benefit status via amendment of its articles of incorporation by a two-thirds vote of shareholders. The law is similar for social purpose corporations (discussed later). B Corp status may provide more options on the sale of the company: (1) buyer competition increased based on the company’s commitment to public benefit, as compared to other potential targets without such a reputational distinction; (2) the seller can consider other factors besides price; and (3) the buyer or seller can keep/remove benefit corporation status immediately before/after sale based on the new owner’s perspective regarding the benefits of B Corp status.

“To ‘B’ or Not To ‘B’?”

There is growing demand for B Corps from: (1) consumers wanting to buy responsibly; (2) employees seeking meaningful jobs; and (3) communities dealing with corporate misconduct. While these Continue Reading Don’t stop B-lievin’: A “Journey” into benefit corporations

monkey-557586_1920A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that two former directors of Theranos – the embattled blood testing company – “did not follow up on public allegations that…the firm was relying on standard technology rather than its much-hyped proprietary device for most tests”.

The report states that the two board members in question – a former admiral and Secretary of State, respectively – were on the Theranos board when concerns about the company’s device were aired publicly.  However, they seem to have believed that it wasn’t their job to ask questions, at least not in the absence of some sort of proof that the concerns were valid.  The former admiral said he “did not have the information that would tell me that it’s true or not true”; the former Secretary of State said that “it didn’t occur to” him to ask questions, adding “[s]ince I didn’t know, I didn’t have anything to look into”. Continue Reading Ducks and monkeys

waldryano
waldryano

I don’t know when Congress decided that every piece of legislation had to have a nifty acronym, but the House Financial Services Committee recently passed (on a partisan basis) what old-fashioned TV ads might have called the new, improved version of the “Financial CHOICE Act”.  The word “choice” is in solid caps because it stands for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs”.

Whether and for whom it creates hope, opportunity or something else entirely may depend upon your perspective, but whatever else can be said of the Act, it is long (though at 589 pages, it is slightly more than half as long as Dodd-Frank), and it addresses a very broad swath of issues.  Here’s what it has to say about some key issues in disclosure, governance and capital formation, along with some commentary. Continue Reading The Financial CHOICE Act – everything you’ve ever wanted, and more?

Internet Archive Book Images
Internet Archive Book Images

I’ve previously commented on the surprising governance initiatives of the Conservative (yes, Conservative) Prime Minister of the UK.  Well, our friends across the pond are at it again – or maybe it’s just more of the same.

Specifically, on April 5, Parliament’s Business Committee issued a series of recommendations contemplating the following:

  1. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) should be empowered, among other things, to report publicly on board or individual director failings.
  2. The FRC should rate companies on governance practices. The ratings would be color-coded (red, yellow and green), and companies would be required to reference them in their annual reports.  If you’re thinking of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, you’re not alone.
  3. Companies would be subject to a slew of new rules on pay:

Continue Reading Heck, Britannia!

SDASM Archives
SDASM Archives

Even as we speculate about the likelihood and potential impact of massive deregulation here in the US, the EU is going in the opposite direction.  Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a Shareholder Rights Directive that contains some “interesting” provisions, including the following:

  • Say-on-Pay: Issuers would be required to hold prospective and retrospective say-on-pay votes (i.e., shareholders would have to approve pay plans in advance as well as how those plans worked out). These votes would be binding unless a member state opts out of this provision.
  • Director Pay: While director pay has generated more scrutiny here in the US, the EU proposes to do something about it – specifically, it appears that director pay would also be subject to shareholder approval, though it’s not clear whether the mechanics would be the same as those for executive compensation. Note that shareholder proposals seeking a say-on-pay vote on director compensation have fared poorly here in the past.
  • Related Party Transactions: “Material” related party transactions would be subject to shareholder approval.

While these items seem pretty scary, the Directive includes some features that companies are likely to approve: Continue Reading Shore patrol

Cornell University Library
Cornell University Library

New York Surrogate Gideon Tucker (1826-1899) is credited with originating the maxim that “no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”  Were Surrogate Tucker around today, he might have added boards of directors to those who should be wary of legislative action.

There are numerous weird bills rumbling around the hallowed halls of Washington these days, but one of the bills that is making me unhappy is the Cybersecurity Disclosure Act of 2017.  The good news is that the bill is very short.

The bad news is threefold. Continue Reading Beware when the legislature is in session

Bob Lamm wins Lifetime Achievement AwardCongratulations to our esteemed colleague, Bob Lamm, for winning this prestigious award! While we all know that Bob is the guru in the governance space, it’s great that he was recognized for all of his achievements (to date!). Well deserved!

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 29, 2016) – Gunster, one of Florida’s oldest and largest full-service business law firms, is pleased to announce that Bob Lamm received the Lifetime Achievement award at the ninth annual Corporate Secretary Corporate Governance Awards.

Lamm serves as co-chair of Gunster’s securities & corporate governance practice. He has devoted his career to governance in his prior positions with companies such as Pfizer; CA, Inc.; and W.R. Grace & Co. In addition to his role at Gunster, Lamm acts as an independent senior advisor to the Deloitte Center for Board Effectiveness and as an advisory director of Argyle, and he has actively been involved as a long-term member of the Society for Corporate Governance. In addition, Lamm serves as a senior fellow of the Conference Board Center for Corporate Governance, as well as a director for the Junior Achievement of South Florida.

“As an independent senior advisor, Bob has made an indelible mark. His dedication shows his deep passion for investing in the next generation of independent directors,” said Deb DeHaas, vice chair and managing partner at the Deloitte Center for Board Effectiveness. “Throughout my career, it has been my experience that truly brilliant people are also kind and generous of spirit. In this respect, Bob is a special treasure; an expert lawyer with a big heart and the soul of a teacher, who shares his knowledge without pretension, and always praises the qualities he sees in others,” added Iain Poole, managing director at Argyle. Bill Perry, Gunster’s CEO and managing shareholder stated that “Bob’s commitment to excellence in corporate governance and securities law is exceptional. We are fortunate to call Bob a colleague and as Florida’s law firm for business, we are honored to have him among our ranks.”

On Thursday, Nov. 3, more than 400 industry professionals in the governance, risk and compliance world gathered together in New York to celebrate the best of the best in the industry and celebrate the lifelong accomplishments of all the evening’s honorees. There were over 300 nominations received in 14 different categories.

 

It remains to be seen whether the new administration will actually drain the swamp or do away with political correctness, but one hope that some of us have – regardless of our views on the election – is that the SEC may finally get around to some issues that have been on the back burner for years.

One such issue is a long-overdue overhaul of the rules surrounding shareholder proposals, including the submission and resubmission thresholds for proposals under SEC Rule 14a-8.  Many organizations, including the Society for Corporate Governance, have repeatedly urged the SEC to update these rules, which have been in place for many years.  However, the SEC has been reluctant to plunge into the area due to the likely political firestorm that would result.

Now, another organization has jumped in.  At the end of October, the Business Roundtable published “Modernizing the Shareholder Proposal Process”, a rational and well thought-out series of suggestions for bringing shareholder proposals into the 21st Century.

Continue Reading A modest proposal about more modest proposals

3102056181_031bf572a9_zIn the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next President, there has been a lot of speculation about the effect of a Trump administration on securities law and corporate governance.  Looking into a crystal ball is always risky, but here are some observations.

Conflict Minerals:  It’s too soon to tell whether Dodd-Frank will be repealed in its entirety, if it will die the death of 1,000 cuts, or if it will stay pretty much as is.  What I will say is that few will cry if the conflict minerals provisions are eliminated (and I will not be among those few).  Complying with the conflict minerals rules is time-consuming  (and therefore costly), and it’s questionable whether many people care.  Perhaps of equal or greater importance is that there is some evidence that the conflict minerals requirements are actually hurting the people they were supposed to help.

Pay Ratio: More of the same here.  There is some support for pay ratio disclosure among labor pension funds, but that’s about it.  Companies don’t like it (duh…), and mainstream investors have no use for it.  Given how the Democrats seem to have fared in the industrial states, it’s not clear that they would fall on their collective sword to save this one. Continue Reading The SEC’s brave new (Trump) world

The morning after a surprising election outcome seems as good a time as any to bear in mind the old saw that the more things change the more they stay the same.

And so it goes with corporate governance trends.  Lost in the piles of paper and ink (real and virtual) expended on the Wells Fargo scandal is an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago suggesting that the beleaguered bank will benefit from its post-oops decision to separate the positions of CEO and Chairman of the Board.

I’ve studied this issue for several years, and I can state with confidence that there is no proof that separating the positions or having an independent Board Chair does anything to improve performance or to avoid problems.  The most that can be said is that the studies are inconclusive.

Continue Reading CEO/Chair separation — the more things change…