The Rise of the Investor Activism Defense Strategy
The Activist-Centric Defense Strategy
As tactical considerations became less effective as an activism defense strategy, boards turned their focus directly to the activists and their agendas. Specifically, some companies took actions with the goal of either preempting the activist or appeasing them, aiming to implement enough of the activist’s thesis to make the remainder of their demands not worth fighting for. The resonant concept was that boards should “think like an activist.” In some cases, these actions resulted in a settlement with the activist or the activist withdrawing after achieving a partial, but “sufficient,” victory.
However, in present times, the major problem with a defense strategy focused primarily on addressing the concerns of an activist is that while the activist may have been satisfied by the outcome, some or many of the activist viewpoints may not have been shared by the broader base of long-term investors. In fact, in recent years, there has been significant pushback from large institutional investors, whose risk profiles and investment time horizons often differ from those of a vocal activist fund, about the practice of companies reaching settlements without receiving input from other shareholders. An unsettled shareholder base can leave companies vulnerable to a follow-on campaign either by the initial activist or another activist with a different agenda.
Takeaways for Issuers
The delicate balance among boards, management teams, investors and activists is a constantly-changing equation. Over the past several years, a small number of asset managers have amassed trillions of dollars of assets and significant power. These investors represent the ultimate “swing vote” that can effectively determine the outcome of an activist situation and are more willing than ever to exercise their vote. Activists have adapted their approaches to appeal to this increasingly powerful bloc of voters, while public companies have been somewhat slower to proactively build relationships beyond traditional investor relations efforts.
Given these new dynamics, it is critical that companies view their potential actions through an investor lens, whether three weeks before a meeting or during the off-season. A key step is engagement and relationship-building with all key investor constituencies before being confronted by an activist. If an activism situation occurs, company management and the board will be able to draw on the trust generated with key decision-makers, will have had the opportunity to tell their story on critical strategic and governance issues, and will have heard and addressed the feedback and concerns of their investors.
This article was originally published on the Nasdaq Governance Clearinghouse