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2015 Trends and Answers in Corporate Governance

2015 is shaping up to be a year where boards, once again, will be under intense pressure and scrutiny to get it right. Here is a list of trends and key issues, along with what boards are or should be doing in response.

1. Greater Director and Advisor Independence

 

Pressure:

 

A director or professional advisor can be formally independent, and yet captured inside the boardroom. Forms of capture reported to me include social relationships, donations, jobs or contracts for friends, perks, vacations, office use, director interlocks, supplier or customer relations, and excessive tenure and compensation. Look for more regulators implementing term limits and moving towards an objective standard of director independence. Look for activists going into the background of directors to demonstrate the capture. Look for investors focusing on the origination of each director and service provider, which is to say how he or she came to be proposed, to address social relatedness.

 

Answer:

 

Boards can protect themselves by terminating any director or professional advisor who cannot be reasonably seen, by directors themselves and more importantly by an outsider, to be independent from management in their oversight and assurance roles. Assume what boards know internally is what is or will become known externally. This trend towards tighter independence standards will continue: For example, internal oversight functions should also now be independent from senior and operating management, and that includes the risk, compliance and audit functions, who now should report functionally to the committees and board. Any director or external or internal advisor to the board or a committee should be, in law and in fact, independent of all reporting management or any other adverse interest, in order to be free to make recommendations that run counter to that of management. A board fully protecting itself would also require a third party anonymous review of director and advisory independence annually, and acting on the results. Directors know who is captured and there should be a mechanism for this to come through.

 

2. Better Board Composition and Diversity

 

Pressure:

 

Regulators are moving towards prescribed competency matrixes; the production of curriculum vitae (not perfunctory short bios); and interviews with directors and oversight functions to determine whether these individuals are fit for purpose. Activists are searching director backgrounds and track record to determine alignment between competencies and the business model and strategy of the company. Regulators are legislating board renewal and diversification, through quotas or the production of measureable objectives covering recruitment to retirement.

 

Answer:

 

Competency, diversity and behaviour matrixes should: flow from the purpose of the board and the strategic and oversight requirements of the company; be established by the nominating committee; and be independently designed and validated to ensure recent and relevant expertise is possessed by each director. The diversity policy should extend the prospective director pool to previously unknown directors and who may be joining their first board (80% of directors are on one board only). Tenure limits and excessive directorships (beyond two) should now be policied and capped (the average board position is 300 hours). Robust matrix analysis and director evaluation should occur by the nominating committee and its independent advisor, not management. The board should extract directors who do not possess relevant and recent competencies or desired behaviours. (See boardroom dynamics, below, for a separate discussion of director behaviour.)

 

3. Risk Governance

 

Pressure:

 

Plaintiff’s investor lawsuits and proxy advisory firms are targeting directors at risk for oversight failure. Regulators are imposing onerous risk coverage requirements on directors that require oversight of internal controls, risk-takers and limitations. Lack of understanding of social media, bring your own device, and cyber security are contributing to enormous investor loss and brand impairment, as an example of technology risk. Recent risk failure by boards also includes sexual harassment, safety, security, technology, bribery, fraud and reputation.

 

Answer:

 

Boards should now have directors possessing risk expertise, as regulators are requiring this. The identity of these directors should be disclosed. Every company should board-approve a risk appetite framework, including internal control reporting and independent, coordinated, assurance over controls mitigating each risk and their interactions. Directors using technology dashboards should oversee risks prospectively. Hiring of risk, compliance and audit functions should occur, reporting to the audit and risk committee. Known limitations should cascade throughout the organization, and back up to the board, with ease, including within each market in which the company operates, and to key suppliers. Annual third party reviews should occur, reporting directly to the board and audit and risk committees. Board and committee charters should have coverage over each material risk, financial and non-financial. Audit committees that oversee substantive non-financial risks may be a red flag. There will need to be significant investment and restructuring of reporting relationships for the foregoing risk governance regulation to occur.

 

4. Compensation Governance

 

Pressure:

 

Media and public pressure over the quantum and alignment of executive pay have resulted in regulation over: compensation committee and advisor independence; say-on-pay; proxy advisors; and pay ratios; but not over pay-for-performance (most important) and clawbacks, yet. Certain public regulators have become more aggressive, targeting the quantum of pay. Financial regulatory focus is on the delivery and alignment of pay. There is a modest, but will be a growing movement once full regulation occurs, moving from (i) short-term, quantitative, financial pay metrics, relying on comparator inter-company benchmarking, which exacerbates pay unrelated to performance, to include (ii) long-term, qualitative, non-financial pay metrics, with customized, risk-adjusted pay delivery commensurate with internal value creation and shareholder return.

 

Answer:

 

Boards should engage directly with long-term, major shareholders on their pay plans, without management influence. Clawbacks should be restructured or implemented based on risk management and ethical failure, not fraud, using an independent advisor not the company lawyer or management-retained counsel. Boards should approve key performance metrics based on an explicit full business model invoked from the strategy. 75% of the performance metrics reflecting the firm value chain should be leading and non-financial indicators. Peer benchmarking should be balanced with the foregoing pay principles and long-term alignment with the product cycle of the company (five to seven years, not three). Non-financial leading metrics such as innovation, value and quality, and financial metrics such as balance sheet and capital treatment and returns, should be incorporated into pay plans that have a line of sight to management performance, without any unjust exogenous enrichment. There is much work to be done here, and more regulation is expected in 2015 and 2016.

 

5. Greater Shareholder Accountability

 

Pressure:

 

Look for activism to grow unabated, and institutional shareholder and even regulatory support of proxy access in 2015, giving greater control to shareholders over director selection and removal. Look for further shareholder assertion of rights and coordination over the targeting of below-average management supervised by complacent boards. Look for shareholder focus on director mindset, track record, and lack of management capture or self-interest. Look for continued attack on entrenchment devices by management and their retained advisors to insulate under-performers.

 

Answer:

 

Camera-ready boards should implement private, candid, executive session meetings with long-term shareholders to discuss governance, risk, pay, and value creation. Investors and boards should focus on company performance in comparison to peers, and superior governance that exceeds the minimal. This includes background of directors. Independent governance auditors should be retained to provide an activist point of view, ahead of a possible attack. Any advisor to the board on shareholder engagement should be independent of management.

 

6. A Focus on Strategy and Value Creation Focus

 

Pressure:

 

Activist and, increasingly, good board focus is on the value creation plan, monitoring, and holding management responsible for its achievement. Complacent or inexperienced boards incapable of directing an under-performing, ineffective or inefficient management team are being targeted. Weak or legacy chairs and directors are also targeted. Excessive or non-performance based compensation is a red flag for governance intervention.

 

Answer:

 

Good boards are becoming engaged, focused, results-oriented and disciplined. Agendas and committee structures are being revised to focus on strategic primacy and value creation. Robust debate and review of the plan is the primary board agenda item each meeting, and strategic practices are adopted, such as, among others, that at least one presentation each meeting from key personnel below the senior level, on that person’s role in the value maximization plan, and a full discussion of progress to date in that regard. However, board renewal is not reflecting this structural and deeper board focus, yet. Ill-chosen directors are still unable to add value strategically, my applied research suggests. There remains ample opportunity for activist intervention.

7. Information Technology Governance

 

Pressure:

 

Rapid technology advancement has created opportunity and risk. There is profound technological ignorance by many or most boards that is creating an inability to direct and oversee management. Cyber security, bring your own device, and social media are just three IT risks that, reviews indicate, have deficient or non-existent internal controls, which in turn causes privacy breach, reputational damage, and significant investor loss. Plaintiff’s lawyers are suing boards, correctly alleging breach of duty of care. Regulation is not keeping up with cyber-threats and hacker advancement.

 

Answer:

 

Boards should be IT literate, agree on the standard and platform, and direct management to have an action plan and target date for implementation, covering crown jewels; assuming penetration; and including internal controls over behavior and human error. Boards should control the budget, talent, resources, reporting and assurance of IT risk as part of broader ERM (enterprise risk management) and strategic risk. Scenario testing, mock attacks, and expert assurance should be board-reported. If management resists third party validation, this is a red flag for any board.

8. Board Performance Audits

Pressure:

Regulation, activist, technical and public pressures are augmenting the objective standard of care for directors. Director action (or inaction) will be visible and risk liability or other loss post failure. Resourced and sophisticated investors are a particular threat, as are regulators. Complying with basic practices is no longer adequate assurance or protection for boards, as capture, entrenchment, self-dealing, complacency and non-performance have all been shown to occur within existing governance frameworks. Governance failure, including bribery, corruption, cyber and under-performance, have occurred at companies whose governance has been said to be exemplary.

Answer:

Good boards and regulators are moving towards independent, internal and deep reviews over the board, risks and internal controls, similar to financial audits. Just as management cannot assure its own work, neither can boards assure a self-review. A well-chosen third party or independent internal auditor provides boards with advance warning on precisely where their vulnerabilities and weaknesses are. An expert audit within an activist and emerging regulatory framework is a wise use of time and resources.

9. Tone at the Top – and Now in the Middle

Pressure:

Long arms of regulators are now able to hold boards vicariously responsible for fraud, bribery and other forms of corruption at deep levels within and even interacting outside their organization. The distraction, assets put at risk, and reputation damage can be significant. “Tone in the middle,” culture, and imprudent risk-taking are the new warning signs on which sophisticated boards are requesting concrete assurance, to ensure directors are not the last to know.

Answer:

Resourced boards are instituting: confidential and incented whistle-blowing procedures; audits of internal controls over culture and reputation; and amnesty, among other best practices, to ensure bad news rises. Explicit and monitored thresholds for the board-approved risk appetite framework are being instituted, along with a line of sight by the board that compensation is not driving bad behaviour. Due diligence, climate, values, spot audits, and the code of conduct are all being independently reviewed and reported to committees and boards, without interference or funneling of reporting management. Good boards are much less tolerant of ethical lapses or management blockage.

 

10. Boardroom Dynamics

 

Pressure:

 

Lastly, the board must gel as a team, and, as a team, control management. Any behavior gap – undue influence, reliance, dislike, dysfunction, or even contempt – by one or more directors or managers, introduces information and oversight asymmetry that can and does lead to governance failure. Every seat at and reporting to the board table matters. The pressure here is a toxic or under-performing director who refuses to resign out of self-interest, or a board allowing integrity breaches and leadership shortcomings by an officer to continue.

 

Answer:

 

Good boards: have behavior matrixes and performance reviews that define and rate behaviours at the board table; have peer reviews and mentoring that develops and refines behaviours; and act on the results regardless of profile or tenure. Due diligence, background checks, interviews, and assessments are all becoming commonplace. Personality testing is also developing.

 

Conclusion

 

There have been more governance change occurring in the last five years than in a generation. Enron, WorldCom and other implosions in 2001-02 are very different from the global financial crisis of 2008-09, which: was systemic, involved banking, and required broad government intervention. There is a regulatory and investor appetite for broad and deep governance change. The above ten changes and responses are touch-points for where governance change is happening the most. Boards and management teams are only about 40% through digesting all of the above reforms, and there are more to come in 2015.

Regulators turning up anti-bribery heat on corporate boards: But will practices change?

Russia is one of the most corrupt nations in the world (see a recent anti-corruption story on Russia by the New York Times). It ranks 143rd of all 182 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, with a score of 2.4. Canada ranks the 10th least corrupt country in the world with a score of 8.7. New Zealand is the least corrupt country globally, ranking first with an overall score of 9.5. The US ranks 24th and the UK 16th, with scores of 7.1 and 7.8 respectively. See the “Full Table and Rankings,” where countries can be searched via the table. Lower rankings and higher scores mean the country is perceived as being less corrupt.

Prime Minister Harper visited China, India and Brazil to enhance trade with these countries, which are also some of the most corrupt nations in the world, ranking in at 95th, 75th and 73rd respectively. Libya, which involved the alleged Montreal-based SNC Lavalin bribes of some $56 million, comes in at 168. Within these countries, the governments themselves are the net beneficiaries of much of the corruption, so these politicians are far from motivated to impose reform.

Is it realistic to expect that Anglo-American nations, such as the US, UK and Canada, can impose “Western” will on the very way business is done, and has been done, in some countries for centuries? And if things will not or perhaps cannot change, should home country boards of directors be held responsible for systemic local corruption that may be beyond their control?

Regulators are taking corruption and the role of boards and senior management very seriously. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice recently released 130 pages of guidance (see the PDF and other coverage here and here) on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). The US has had the FCPA since 1977. Enforcement and penalties have gone up dramatically in recent years. The UK Bribery Act, from 2010, has some of the most stringent bribery laws in the world. In Canada, we have The Corruption of Foreign Officials Act (since 1999) and the recent guideline from the OSC for issuers operating in emerging markets (see the PDF).

Emerging economies are future markets for Canadian companies. The Prime Minister has a vision for Canada to be an energy supplier superpower. For this to happen, Canada will shift its trade to markets with 100s of millions or billions of consumers and much higher growth rates than our current major trade partner, the US, which could be coping with austerity due to its debt for years to come. Harper was in India last week to boost trade.

What is clear is that there is an enormous disconnect between the home country regulations now being imposed, and host country actual practices on the ground.

What should boards that have operations in emerging market jurisdictions do? Six things. First, if you are doing business in such a market, you need a director with extensive on-the-ground experience at the board table, who can tell you and management what the hotspots are. You should move a board meeting to the jurisdiction once a year so directors can get a first hand look. Second, boards must make it crystal clear to management that if the company is not going to bribe, management must walk away from certain business. And the board must support this and not have incentives that promote bribery. Third, the internal controls over financial reporting must be as strong in the emerging market as it is in the home market. Investment and resource commitments need to be made. Fourth, boards must have their own experts to scrutinize off-balance sheet and related-party transactions and complex structures; validate and assure internal controls; and provide foreign language document translation. Fifth, local auditors should have the same oversight, scrutiny, and as necessary direct contact with the audit committee that the home auditors have. Lastly, there needs to be zero tolerance by the board communicated to each employee and supplier. The UK is even banning facilitating payments, which are regarded as a “tip,” as these may be bribes in disguise.

Companies and politicians are feeling the pain, including on Canadian shores. The Wal-Mart bribery probe has widened beyond Mexico to include China, Brazil and India. The RCMP is investigating the SNC Lavalin bribery allegations, on which I advised a law firm suing the company. I blogged about Sino-Forest, a case of alleged Chinese fraud by a Canadian-listed company. In Quebec, the corruption inquiry has cost the Mayors of Montreal and Laval their jobs and this is only the beginning. There are allegations of kickbacks in cash that may reach other more senior politicians. And Ontario is not immune either. A senior Canadian director remarked that Ontario has a reputation for being “the best place to carry out a stock fraud in the industrialized world.”

Clearly, more work needs to be done. Canada’s corruption ranking on Transparency International may go down in 2012 instead of up.

New financial services governance guidelines for Canada: Analysis & summary

The proposed OSFI corporate governance guidelines have been criticized for blurring the line between the board and management and for adopting a ‘one sized fits all’ approach. This is hardly surprising, and is the criticism to many governance regulations over the last twenty years, along with cost, as boards have become more active.

The OSFI guidelines have not changed in almost 10 years. In full disclosure, I was asked by OSFI to a) conduct a review and assessment of OSFI’s 2003 Corporate Governance Guideline and the Board Assessment Criteria against other international financial regulatory practices and recent developments or recommendations, and b) provide suggestions for future revisions after taking into consideration current global governance developments, including those related to financial institutions.

I reviewed 57 codes in total for OSFI, carefully tracking developments globally since the financial crisis. There are four major changes (among others) since the 2003 guidelines as follows:

1.         Boards of federally-regulated financial institutions (FRFIs) will need to have risk and relevant financial industry expertise represented in their board. This is entirely reasonable and codifies what good boards already do in their competency matrix approach that I recommended to the OSC in 2005. The notion that a board such as JPMorgan should have no independent directors with banking experience, for example, can have dire consequences when approving complex products and risks that directors do not understand for want of expertise. OSFI is not being overly prescriptive, only saying it desires “reasonable representation” of risk and financial industry expertise, leaving it to FRFIs to define and determine. It is not unreasonable to have risk and industry expertise on the board of a financial institution.

2.         Second, independent third parties should be retained to assess the board, risk management and oversight functions. This does not mean the board is “managing,” but rather the board gets to see an objective view other than from management. Management is conflicted in assuring its own work and the board should not be beholden to this. The board should be free at any time to commission an independent review of any material risks or internal controls. This puts the heat on management, as a third party will be reviewing at some point. If management is doing its job, it should welcome this input. This proposal can be criticized for “offloading” oversight to outsiders, but with 100s of FRFIs that carry deposits and insurance of Canadians, independent reviews from time to time are a fail safe.

3.         Third, the board may need to have a dedicated risk committee and reporting function (e.g., CRO); and should approve a risk appetite framework (RAF) with cascading tolerance limits and implementation. This puts the heat on boards to know and understand the risks of their institution, and on management to translate that into thresholds complied with throughout the organization. OSFI set out at pages 19-20 of the draft guideline guidance on what the RAF should contain with areas and examples of best practices. It is not unreasonable for the board to approve risk, but with examples of what this actually entails. The OSC 2005 guideline (NP 58-201) is now out of date because risk is only a few lines: namely that the board should identify the principal risks and ensure implementation of appropriate systems to manage these risks – which is vague at best and wholly inadequate at worst.

4.         Lastly, the CFO, head of internal audit and appointed actuary (for insurance companies) should have a direct reporting line to the audit committee; and the audit committee should approve the external audit fees and scope. Not only is this best practice, internationally, but I would also add, as OSFI similarly goes on to write, that the audit committee should have private sessions with the internal audit, external audit and appointed actuary at every audit committee meeting. The audit committee should also approve the internal audit work plan, budget, independence, person and compensation.

Overall the draft OSFI guidelines are proportionate, pragmatic and reflect leading practices (e.g., G30, Walker and OECD reports and Basel principles). Canada has a very well regulated financial services sector, that some say is the envy of the world. These new corporate governance guidelines will help ensure that this fiscal prudence and stewardship continues.

Quebec Premiere Charest’s Proposed Anti-Takeover Law is Misguided

Premiere Jean Charest, who is in the midst of an election campaign that he is losing, is promising a law that would give stakeholders at Quebec companies – such as employees, management, suppliers and local communities – superiority over the interests of shareholders. This potential law is misguided and would entrench ineffective boards, management teams and firms, to the detriment of shareholders, investment and the Quebec economy overall. See here also.

When a similar law PA-SB 1310 was enacted in Pennsylvania – to preserve local employment, disgorge profits and ward off unsolicited take-overs – stock prices declined by $4B in the six-month period between the announcement and enactment of the law, according to a study by researchers Szewczyk and Tsetsekos. Pennsylvanian companies that chose to opt out of some or all of the law experienced “significant positive stock price returns,” while Pennsylvania companies that adopted the law performed “significantly worse” than firms outside Pennsylvania, according to Stanford researchers Larcker and Tayan.

While many US states have enacted so-called “stakeholder statutes,” these laws enable – although do not require – boards to consider the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders in their deliberations. These laws are largely permissive in nature in other words, and good boards always consider stakeholder interests in any event. The Canadian Supreme Court has spoken on how to do this. Pennsylvania’s law is not only mandatory – obligating certain stakeholders to be considered – but also places the interests of non-shareholders above those of shareholders, as Quebec’s proposed law intends to do. Indeed, under Charest’s proposal, shareholders, remarkably, may not even have a vote on a proposed takeover. Our high court has stated, in BCE Inc. v. 1976 Debentureholders, that a board has a duty to treat stakeholders affected by corporate actions equitably and fairly, and that there is “no principle that one set of interests should prevail over another” (page 9). Charest’s proposal, if it unfairly treats shareholders (and prima facie this is almost certainly the case if it denies them a vote), may be challenged on the basis of its constitutionality.

In the market for corporate control, accountability to everyone is accountability to no one. From an investor’s perspective, shareholder rights plans, staggered boards, dual class shares and restrictions on shareholders to call meetings and vote on corporate changes by written consent are all efforts to entrench ineffective management and firms, and enable the extraction of private wealth by insiders, to the detriment of other shareholders.

Politicians should not be in the business of picking winners and losers as they do not have the competence to do this. Government is not governance. Nor do judges have this ability to second-guess managers and boards. There is a well enshrined “business judgment rule” holding that a judge may not second-guess corporate judgment providing proper process occurred. A law like what is being proposed by Charest, which is essentially a bias against shareholders, immunizes a firm from competition, in essence saying a board can “just say no” to a takeover, full stop. Takeovers – even Rona by US’s Lowe’s Cos. Inc. – occur because of weaknesses and inefficiencies in the marketplace. (I was in a Rona store the other day and walked out when I could not find someone to help me.) If a firm cannot compete on the basis of price, quality or service, it should be taken over or replaced by a firm and a management team who can.

The Supreme Court was clear in the BCE case that the duty is owed from the board to the corporation, but that a stakeholder cannot be unfairly treated. Stakeholders include shareholders, who cannot contract with the company like other stakeholders can. While the high court did not endorse shareholder wealth maximization, it certainly did not invalidate it either. Once shareholder wealth maximization is vitiated, as this Quebec law would do, shareholders will simply invest their money elsewhere, where their rights and vote are respected, as they did in Pennsylvania. Quebec will lose.

Politicians should be more concerned with creating the fiscal and economic climate to attract jobs and investment, not enacting protective barriers that will have the opposite effect in a global world.

 

The Battle for CP ~ Welcome to the Great (and Cozy) White North, Mr. Ackman

By now, you may have heard that Canadian Pacific CEO Fred Green, Chairman John Cleghorn, and four other CP directors have resigned or will not stand for re-election, to make way for Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman and a new slate of CP directors – and a new approach to corporate governance in Canada.

The Pershing Square bid is the perfect storm for what is wrong with Canadian corporate governance: (i) the lack of attention to strategy; (ii) the lack of shareholder accountability; and (iii) the lack of directors with domain expertise. It represents a tipping point for any board in the way it does – or should do – business in Canada.

Lack of Attention to Strategy

The “Dey” Guidelines are now almost 20 years old. They are outdated. Much has changed in corporate governance. Canada needs revised and updated guidelines to the 2005 National Policy, which incorporated many of the Dey guidelines. The Dey guidelines from 1994 contain six words on strategy: “adoption of a strategic planning process,” which is inherently ambiguous. The 2005 National Policy is not much better, adding that the board must approve a strategic plan at least annually. (Emphasis added).

This approach to strategy is wholly inadequate, and the consequences are obvious. In an Institute of Corporate Directors session I facilitated of ninety-four directors last week, when a question on the board’s role in strategy was asked, two panelists deadpanned “we do it in a superficial way” and “it doesn’t happen.” Boards have become obsessed with compliance at the expense of value creation for the company and shareholders.

The research – from Ernst and Young, Egon Zehnder and McKinsey for example – confirm that a more engaged board under a private equity governance model will outperform their public company peers, by a factor of three to one. This outperformance under a Bill Ackman model cannot be ignored by public companies. For academics who desire to show a more causal link between governance and performance, as do I, it should not be ignored either.

The deep dives and due diligence conducted by Pershing Square – over 100 pages in total – should be conducted by boards if they are doing their job, and wish to keep hedge funds from knocking at their door. But there is code like “nose in fingers out” or “micro management” used by Canadian CEOs and directors themselves that keeps directors from performing their strategic role.

The evidence of CP is a case example: Seven COOs and CFOs were replaced in the last five years; CP has consistently underperformed across its peers, including its Operating Ratio; and yet CEO Fred Green met 17 of 18 objectives set by the CP board. And the board moved those targets, resulting in the cost of management as a percentage doubling.

Public company boards need to be much more engaged in strategy, and demanding of management. As reported in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, value may be “left on the table” ~ which would invite sophisticated investors like Bill Ackman to come in.

I have reviewed public and private plans by activist shareholders and private equity firms and there is no comparison to the often “superficial” (to use a word from above) approach to strategy typically taken by public company boards. There is absolute clarity under private equity what management is held responsible for, and variances to be reported in advance to – and understood by – the board. Boards of this caliber are much more engaged and focused on shareholder value. No stone is left unturned.

Lack of Attention to Shareholders

Second, many public boards in Canada do not meet directly with shareholders, or if they do, it is behind closed doors – the “cozy” Canadian way. Bill Ackman did not accept this and was unwilling to compromise or go away. This cozy environment has to change, including shareholders asserting themselves much more. And lawyers cannot unduly influence this communication.

Most importantly, Canadian shareholders should have proxy access, or the right to nominate directors of their choosing and put those directors on to the proxy circular, which is another American development that makes sense. It should not take Pershing Square, a 14% shareholder of CP, CP’s largest, a long, protracted, expensive proxy battle to implement governance change. Vote counting, majority voting, plurality voting, etc., are window dressing. Shareholders should have the right to nominate directors to boards and fire directors who do not perform, with ease and transparency. The threshold should be low, or even based on the company’s largest shareholders.

In addition, Canadian directors need to have a % of their net wealth at stake in the boards on which they sit, for true shareholder accountability and alignment. This does not mean directors receiving shares for board service, but actually issuing a check from their savings. The CP board owned 0.2% of stock and it was given to them, not bought. If one director, had $100M of his or her own wealth invested, the CEO would be replaced, Pershing Square said.

Lack of Attention to Domain Expertise

Lastly, the entire board of CP, other than the CEO, did not have rail experience prior to Pershing Square’s involvement. This is a direct consequence of the Dey guidelines from 1994, even though the research does not support independent directors and firm performance. The reason is that if directors do not understand the business, or industry, they are under-engaged in strategy and even their ability to monitor is compromised. They don’t understand. Look at the board of JPMorgan, which lost $2B last week. Other than the CEO, not even a single director has banking experience. If a director does not have experience in the sector, they cannot identify the risks.

Pershing Square’s directors have been selected on the basis of railroad expertise, restructuring expertise, shareholder representation, entrepreneurial culture and a culture of equity ownership and shareholder value creation. What a breath of fresh air. Boards would be wise to take a page from the Bill Ackman playbook, or shareholders should themselves.

And, most of the above Pershing Square directors are from Canada. The notion that we have a talent shortage is a myth. If the board’s desire is for a “CEO,” then there may be a shortage, but the evidence from Stanford University is that CEOs do not make better directors. There is plenty of talent in Canada, and boards need to reach into the C-suite and into shareholder communities. And they need to diversify to mitigate groupthink. The directors exist. My own database contains hundreds.

The Need For New Guidelines

Shareholder accountability, strategic engagement, and director experience and skills, all point to shortcomings that are non-existent or short-changed in the Canadian corporate governance landscape. This is exactly what Bill Ackman brings to the table. Welcome to Canada, Mr. Ackman.


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