(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, large shareholders are closer than ever to “knock-knock-knockin’ on the boardroom’s door.”
In a Wall Street Journal report today, “SEC Set to Open Up Proxy Process”, Kara Scannell reports that the SEC has scheduled a meeting on August 25, 2010 for approval of proposed Rule 14a-11, the shareholder access rule that was originally proposed on June 10, 2009. Scannell reports that the Commission is expected to approve a revised version of the rule by a 3-2 vote, with the Republican Commissioners voting against approval. The passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act on July 21, 2010 clarified the SEC’s authority to order proxy access and thus removed a major legal concern about enforcement of the rule (Act Section 972).
Rule 14a-11 will grant to large shareholders of public companies the right to nominate directors and have the nominees included in management’s proxy statement. Scannell reports that under the language currently being negotiated (still subject to change), shareholders would be required to beneficially own at least 3% of the outstanding stock for at least two years before having the right to nominate directors. Under the original proposal, the threshold was 1%, 3% or 5% depending upon the size of the company, with a one year ownership requirement. The company would be required to include shareholder nominees for up to 25% of the board positions. If nominees are received above the 25% limit, access is granted on a first-come-first-served basis.
In an interesting post on the Altman Group’s Governance & Proxy Review, “Dog Days of Pre-Proxy Access Summer”, Francis H. Byrd discusses the stated intention of the CalSTRS pension fund and hedge fund Relational Investors to team up to seek four boards seats at the Occidental Petroleum 2011 annual meeting. The funds stated that the issues driving their intended contest are executive compensation and succession planning, not financial performance. Byrd points out that the joint 1% holdings of the funds will not be sufficient under the rumored 3% standard in the final proxy access rule, so it’s not clear that the funds will ultimately seek the board seats.
Byrd describes these lessons from the Occidental situation:
First, don’t let corporate governance issues – especially on compensation – fester. . . . The goal should be to limit surprise issues, and be proactive with both your largest holders and the governance influencers like CalSTRS or the NYS Common Fund.
Second, companies . . . . that have [received a majority vote or large vote in favor of non-binding shareholder proposals but] ignored such votes in the past – especially if their stock performance has struggled – will be prime targets for short slate campaigns. This also holds true for companies whose directors have been targeted in Vote No campaigns. Substantial withhold votes from directors could also serve as a beacon for activists seeking to run a potential short slate.
Lastly, your Say on Pay vote matters on more than compensation. Many investors, especially the activist institutions, view compensation as a window for judging the quality of board oversight and determining whether a CEO is ‘imperial’. . . . In that context, a failed Say on Pay vote could be viewed as a signal to an activist that there is at least some lack of confidence in the board and management.
As the proxy access rules quickly approach reality, public companies should plan accordingly – and listen for the knockin' on the boardroom’s door.