The Role of Individual Investors in Prompting Governance Reform via the Proxy Process

guest commentary by Tim Smith – Walden Asset Management

We have all read a great deal about the concern that companies, the [US] Chamber of Commerce and SEC Commissioner Gallagher have about the “highjacking” of the proxy process.

Particular anger is aimed at John Chevedden, Bill Steiner  and James McRitchie who file multiple resolutions on governance reforms — like majority vote, annual election of directors, changing different classes of shares with unequal voting rights, right for shareholders to call a special meeting and separate Chair and CEO, among others.

Mr. Chevedden is criticized for some of the language in his resolution texts as well as his seeming unwillingness to change false and misleading statements in the whereas clauses . In fact, 4 companies sued him this year to block resolutions he submitted either for himself as a shareholder or for colleagues like James McRitchie.

But it seems much of the frustration is not aimed at him but at the strong positive votes for such reforms  supporting many of these proposals . On many governance issues he coordinates and files, votes are in the 30 to 40 % range AND as you will see below many get well over 50%. Few are low level vote getters.

So while questions can be raised about the style of Mr. Chevedden’s engagements, few can argue that they don’t touch a nerve and get a positive investor response .

That leaves one questioning why SEC Commissioner Gallagher sees this as an abuse and believes there should be an increase in the value of shares held for a proponent to US$200,000 or “even better $2 million.”  Of course, such a change would virtually wipe out the role of small individual investors in the proxy process.

Another way to view it is that these are valuable governance reforms being tested by individual shareholders who could certainly brush up on the facts in their whereas clauses and open up engagement with companies — but nevertheless add real value to an ongoing debate about best governance practices and actually stimulate numerous reforms by companies .

Why is a resolution filed by a major pension fund or investment firm on the same topic any more meritorious than one by an individual shareholder?

The votes seem to indicate that proxies are voted on the issue — not the proponent.

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–Timothy Smith, Senior Vice President and Director of Environmental Social and Governance Shareowner Engagement Walden Asset Management .

Boston, MA 02108 – Tel: 617-726-7155

tsmith@bostontrust.com

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FYI – Samples of Votes With Over 50% – Companies Receiving Resolutions from John Chevedden:

 

Costco Wholesale Corporation (COST)
Simple Majority Vote
James McRitchie
65%

Brocade Communications Systems, Inc. (BRCD)
Special Meeting Kenneth Steiner 60%

Allergan, Inc. (AGN)
Independent Board Chairman
John Chevedden
50%+

BorgWarner Inc. (BWA)
Simple Majority Vote
John Chevedden
79%

Brink’s Company (BCO)
Annual Election of Each Director
William Steiner
78%

Bristol-Myers Squibb Company (BMY)
Simple Majority Vote
Kenneth Steiner
85%

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (CMG)
Simple Majority Vote
James McRitchie
75%

Duke Energy Corporation (DUK)
Special Meeting
John Chevedden
60%

iRobot Corporation (IRBT)
Simple Majority Vote
James McRitchie
82%

PPL Corporation (PPL)
Special Meeting
William Steiner
59%

NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE)
Simple Majority Vote
Myra K. Young
73%

Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (ALXN)
Pill
John Chevedden
91%

Ferro Corporation (FOE)
Simple Majority Vote
Kenneth Steiner
99%

Neustar Inc (NSR)
A
nnual Election of Each Director
John Chevedden
86%

Staples Inc. (SPLS)
Independent Board Chairman
John Chevedden
50%+