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No Shut-down for Activism

While activist activity was down a bit in the first quarter of 2020, compared with last year’s first quarter, according to Activist Insight’s “Shareholder Activism in Q1 2020” report, there were still plenty of shareholder demands made of public companies.

By sector, industrials was the largest group impacted by activism, followed by financial services and consumer cyclicals. Large cap companies were the most affected, with U.S.-based companies making up 70 percent of those subjected to activist demands.

Shareholder demands are still being made of public companies, according to Activist Insight’s “Shareholder Activism in Q1 2020” report.

Lazard’s 1Q 2020 activism review shows that the number of targeted companies in the first quarter of this year was roughly the same as in last year’s first quarter. On the other hand, Reuters, reporting on the Lazard review, noted that while 2020 began on a strong note, with activist firms pushing for change at 42 companies in the first two months of the year, new activist campaign launches fell by 38 percent in March, when the global economic shut-down began in earnest.  Further, Reuters reported that new activist campaigns were, “launched at the slowest pace since 2013 and corporate agitators put the smallest amount of money to work since 2016.”  

Even so, there are several high-profile campaigns looming. One getting some buzz, according to Bloomberg, is Standard General’s proxy fight with Tenga, Inc., a $2 billion media company. This contest will be the first-ever all-digital board fight. With Standard General seeking four board seats, Tenga’s virtual annual meeting on April 30 will be a test for activism, both digitally and in the world of COVID-19. 

While virtual annual meetings are nothing new, counting contested votes remotely is. Bloomberg noted that Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc., which prepares, ships and counts most of the proxies for U.S. companies, doesn’t currently have a specific platform to allow for remote voting in a contested situation.  According to a Broadridge representative, the company, “lacks the technology” to count virtual votes when there are competing director slates. 

Bob Marese, president at MacKenzie Partners Inc., a proxy solicitation firm, said that it could, “be more difficult for proxy solicitors get investors to switch their votes in the lead up to the meeting because many are not in the office, nor are the bankers or brokers they may need to change their vote.” Other potential pitfalls include the inability for shareholders to ask tough questions in a virtual meeting setting. According to the Financial Times (as reported by IR Magazine), investors have become concerned that virtual annual meetings could “shift the balance of power” away from shareholders, as companies have greater control over managing Q&A sessions virtually.

What does the future hold for activist activity? Since many companies have curtailed stock buyback activity in light of the COVID-19 crisis, Lazard believes that activists pressing for return of capital through buybacks will not be a focus. 

Jim Rossman, the head of shareholder advisory at Lazard, believes that, “lower M&A activity and companies focused on conserving cash will mean that activists are likely to increase their focus on operational performance and how management teams react to the crisis as the basis for new campaigns.” He went on to say that activists will likely want to avoid looking overly aggressive during the pandemic as to not offend other investors, “whose help they might need in pushing their case later.” 

Chris Young, managing director and global head of contested situations at Jefferies, also believes overly aggressive activists could face media backlash for seemingly profiting off the pandemic. Young further believes that, “having lived through the prior period of sky-high market volatility, we expect there will be a decline in activist campaigns in the near-term. Once volatility subsides and corporate valuations reset at new normal levels, however, we expect activists could have enough time to initiate new campaigns, including submitting director nominations for proxy season 2021.”

While COVID-19 may be changing the activist landscape in the near-term, the same best practices apply to help make sure your company is ready in the event of aggressive shareholder demands. Analyze your shareholder base and stay in-the-know about changes in ownership, especially during a period of extreme volatility when activists can build positions more cheaply; be open to proactively engaging with investors, even while you hunker down to focus on the impact of the current health crisis and economic downturn; and, think about adopting a “poison pill,” or at least having one at the ready. 

Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Hello 2016

We’re excited to usher in 2016 and looking forward to keeping you informed on this blog about all things relevant to investor relations, strategic public relations and Julia Child’s secret recipes.  Now that your ears are perked, following are a couple of interesting tidbits from PondelWilkinson.

  • Evan Pondel recently wrote the cover story for IRupdate magazine on how to think like an activist.   He interviewed Chris Kiper, founder of activist firm Legion Partners, for a rare look at his playbook.  Check out the story on page six of the issue.
  • PondelWilkinson volunteered a couple of weeks ago at Working Dreams’ Holiday Toy Event, where PW helped foster children select presents that were donated to the organization.  Following is a picture of the team.Working Dreams
  • And last but certainly not least, Roger Pondel wrote the following New Year’s resolution on transparency.

2016 Resolution: Don’t Forget the Transparency

At the risk saying, “We told you so,” 2015 proved to be a year when companies that failed to heed our mantra, Transparency Adds Value, took it on the chin.

Whether privately owned or publicly traded, in times of crisis or when all is going well, transparency always pays off…period. And the lack thereof, almost always backfires bigtime.

Probably the year’s biggest lack-of-transparency story was Volkswagen’s emission-cheating scandal that actually began more than 10 years ago, long before the news broke. I guess it’s hard to keep those kinds of secrets forever. Want to buy a VW today? How ‘bout an Audi?

In our business, people sometimes have the misimpression that it’s all about spin. (I hate that word, except when it’s part of an exercise class and done to a Latin jazz beat.)

No, it’s not about spin. It’s about journalistic fact finding, developing a communications and messaging strategy, perhaps biting some bullets a la corporate castor oil style…then telling the truth to mitigate the damage and maintain reputation.

And it’s not all about crises. Just look at what happened in 2015 to the valuations of many once-considered-hot, pre-public tech companies that lost billions in combined valuation because of lack of transparency.

Lack of transparency hurts customers, employees and investors alike. And while no one is happy to hear less than stellar corporate news, the market rewards transparency. Companies that do not practice it would do well to heed our mantra in 2016 and beyond.

Here’s to a transparent 2016 that brings peace and prosperity to all!

Kendall Jackson

So, NIRI hosted its annual Los Angeles dinner last night at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.  I was the first person to arrive (gulp) and quickly did a u-turn at the door to avoid feeling like an over zealous investor relations professional.  But then I noticed Kendall Jackson standing at the bar.  I affixed my name tag to my lapel and meandered over to the bar for a chat with Mr. Jackson.  I kept my head down at first, you know, to keep the casual nature of the event in full effect.  Armed with business cards and a fresh coat of antiperspirant, I proceeded to speak with Mr. Jackson.  I said hello, and before he could utter a word, his handler, the bartender, informed me that it would cost $5 to speak with Mr. Jackson.  
 
I forked over the $5 and spent the next hour and a half entertaining Mr. Jackson, along with other investor relations professionals.  We met Jeff Morgan, the recently appointed chief executive officer of NIRI.  We said hello to Jim Lucas of Abernathy MacGregor.  We also listened to Linda Kelleher, executive vice president of NIRI, talk about shareholder activism and where the industry is headed.  Specifically, Kelleher said instead of letting activist shareholders come to you with questions about a particular company, you should proactively be reaching out to them.  My motto for 2008: Engage activism with activism.  And with that I finished my conversation with Kendall Jackson and proactively ordered another one at the bar.

 

Evan Pondel, Senior Associate, epondel@pondel.com