Future Students, Alumni & Visitors





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 They are outdated.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.

Save and Share
  • Print
  • PDF
  • email
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • RSS

Comments are closed.

text cloud