United States: Effectively Telling Your Executive Compensation Story As An Activist Defensive Measure

Overview

Compensation arrangements are generally not the driver of activist campaigns, but poor (or poorly perceived) pay practices heighten a company's risk of activist activity and provide activists with additional weapons for use in their campaigns. Activists target companies that exhibit weak corporate governance structures and pay for performance misalignment. Companies should regularly evaluate their executive compensation program to assess and identify their vulnerabilities. Being prepared by having a response plan in place in the event of activist activity is a best practice.

Activists, for the most part, are focused on value creation through strategic and financial initiatives, but they use executive compensation as a point of discussion to show how their perspective differs from management's and to highlight concerns and disconnects between company performance and incentives. For example, if return on capital is not a metric used in a company's incentive plans and the company has completed several low-return acquisitions, an activist may use this to support an argument that management's strategy is weak and that the company's executive compensation structure fails to address that weakness. When executive compensation is easily tied to poor financial results as a rhetorical matter, it provides activists with another compelling reason to sway other shareholders as to why a shift in leadership or strategy is advisable.

Effectively telling your company's executive compensation story in your proxy statement can act as a key defensive measure against potential activist campaigns. Not only can it mitigate the occurrence of an activist campaign, but it can also provide a key opportunity to show other shareholders how the company is already on the right track. This positive impact can be enhanced through proactive shareholder engagement using the proxy disclosure as a tool for dialogue and influence.

Undertake a Defensive Review

Prior to engaging with shareholders (either directly or through the proxy), it is essential to review the company's executive compensation program. Such a review may also serve useful in the event the company finds itself in need of a response plan for an activist attack focused on poor executive compensation practices. A comprehensive review should include the following:

  • Market understanding and monitoring. Track peer group companies for activist activity; monitor calls into the company from shareholders or others regarding executive compensation; follow media reports and thirdparty governance ratings of the company.
  • Executive compensation design. Undertake a regular review of executive compensation programs from an activist perspective, in particular confirming continued alignment with the company's strategic vision; assess how the company's programs compare to those of its peers; consider using outside advisors to identify executive compensation program weaknesses; understand any underperformance of the company and how it is impacting executive compensation.

Focus on the "Why"

A compensation discussion and analysis (CD&A) is most effective when it moves beyond mere compliance and instead is used to tell the story in a reader-friendly manner of why the company's executive compensation design supports and enhances the business goals of the company. The now-emerged (and arguably best-practice) use of CD&A executive summaries can be helpful, as can graphic presentations—but try to do more. Shareholders, proxy advisors, and proxy commentators often say that companies are getting very good at telling us the "what," but they still do not provide the "why." Almost every company tells the reader about, for example, the 200% maximum bonus opportunity (the "what"), but few explain the reason 200% base salary was the right maximum bonus opportunity to motivate the executive team to achieve desired results (the "why"). Similarly, do not just list the performance metrics of a bonus program, but instead explain the rationale for selecting those performance metrics. Describe changes from metrics used in prior years, and connect that change to the company's changing business strategies. Or, if metrics have stayed the same, explain why they are still the right goals.

When writing the CD&A, use the tools of any good narrative:

  • specificity,
  • simplicity,
  • active voice, and
  • clarity.

Review the CD&A annually, and consider whether it remains fresh and describes the current executive compensation program. Avoid the "cut-and-paste" approach so that stale information does not get transferred from year to year without thorough review. Reduce duplication. Effective narrative can preemptively address shareholders' largest concerns, including claims of pay-for-performance disconnect, by doing the work for the reader—show the reader how the company's executive compensation program drove its specific performance objectives.

Address Hot-Button Issues

When preparing proxy compensation disclosure, be sure to discuss topics that shareholders are interested in, such as rotating committee chairs, whistleblower and ethics hotline, and structuring pay to prevent mistakes instead of paying bonuses when someone fixes a mistake. In addition, highlight mitigating factors in the company's executive compensation program, including clawbacks, holding requirements, prohibitions on hedging or pledging, and shareholder-approved limits. Finally, address performance problems or missteps head on. Meaningful, effective disclosure enables readers to assess the company's pay practices, the rigor of performance goals, comparability with peers, and alignment of pay and performance.

Current hot-button issues include the following:

  • Unaddressed negative say-on-pay results
  • Performance and pay misalignment
  • Use of the same performance measures throughout executive compensation plans (including both longand short-term plans)
  • Use of non-objective "soft" performance criteria
  • Insufficient performance-based long-term awards
  • Evergreen executive contracts
  • Perks and other executive-only benefit plans and policies
  • Gross-ups
  • Awards of special grants outside the ordinary executive compensation program structure
  • Board of director compensation
  • Board of director diversity concerns
  • Low director election support
  • Outsized compensation as compared to peers

Throughout the year, many institutional investors discuss what pay practices they expect to see at their portfolio companies. Keep in mind these as well as the above issues of interest.

Consider Culture Perceptions

When preparing disclosure, consider how it can communicate to shareholders a sense of the company's culture. For example, the active engagement of employees and directors is an indicator of a healthy culture and a signal of better organizational performance. Boards should be engaged and proactive and should regularly measure and monitor company-specific values and behaviors. This is particularly important in a year when a company might be facing brand-damaging press due to perceived or actual unethical or illegal behaviors, such as sexual harassment scandals. To the extent the board is actively engaged in monitoring the culture of the company, its activities should be described in the proxy. If board members are not already discussing culture as a key area of company-wide risk, consider raising it with them.

Culture red flags to keep in mind include the following:

  • Focus on performance with little regard to how results are achieved
  • High performers allowed to operate outside established policies, and rewards for conduct inconsistent with stated values or code of conduct
  • Excessive focus on consensus or collegiality and a discouragement of sharing of "bad" news
  • Promotions or recognition tied to relationships rather than skills and performance

Know Your Shareholders

Crafting the right disclosure is only the start of effectively telling your executive compensation story. Shareholders can voice their support for, or concerns with, a company's executive compensation program through a non-binding advisory vote on executive compensation, commonly referred to as "say-on-pay." But a significant shortcoming of say-on-pay is that it does not allow shareholders to provide specific input on executive compensation program design and pay practices. It also does not provide a forum for the company to get to know its key shareholders and build rapport. Having an open dialogue with key shareholders regarding executive compensation in place prior to the onset of an activist campaign can be essential in containing an activist message that a company's executive compensation program does not support value creation.

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Originally published in PLI Current: The Journal of PLI Press, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer 2018)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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