What’s the minimum percentage of votes a director should get at the company’s annual shareholder meeting?
At San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co.’s recent shareholder meeting held April 25 in Ponte Vedra, Florida, nine of the 15 directors won re-election with less than 75 percent of the vote, even though there were no other candidates. Three of them plus the current chairman, Stephen Sanger, won with less than 60 percent of the vote, following last year’s revelation that thousands of employees had sold customers more than 2 million unauthorized accounts over several years to meet aggressive corporate sales goals. Then-CEO John Stumpf lost his job, and as did Carrie Tolstedt, the head of retail banking.
The question now is whether directors will lose their jobs as well. Sanger acknowledged that the vote last month wasn’t exactly a home run for the board.
“Wells Fargo stockholders today have sent the entire board a clear message of dissatisfaction,’’ he wrote in a statement. “Let me assure you that the board has heard the message, and we recognize there is still a great deal of work to do to rebuild the trust of stockholders, customers and employees.”
There was no word on whether Sanger intends to step down soon, but he did tell reporters after the meeting that he and five other directors would retire during the next four years when they reach the board’s mandatory retirement age of 72. Sanger turned 71 in March.
Directors on other bank boards have taken the hint when shareholder votes showed a loss of confidence. Following JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s London whale trading scandal, two directors stepped down in 2013.
Receiving less than 80 percent of the vote in a no-contest election is a pretty clear sign of discontent, says Charles Elson, a professor of finance at the University of Delaware and the director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance. (He also happens to be a Wells Fargo shareholder.) Most directors garner more than 90 percent of shareholder votes, he adds.
Some of Wells Fargo directors could barely get support from half the shareholders. “The vote is significant,’’ Elson says. “It’s probably time to refresh that board.”
The board’s own conduct may have raised further questions about whether members were fit to meet their responsibilities. A report compiled by Shearman & Sterling LLP, a law firm working for the board, said in April that the board wasn’t aware of how many employees had been fired for sales-related practices until 2016.
The Los Angeles Times first reported on the extent of the problem in 2013 in a series of investigative stories. In 2015, the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo related to the practices. [For more on how “Wells Fargo Bungled Its Cross-Sell Crisis,” see Bank Director’s first quarter magazine.]
“Sales practices were not identified to the board as a noteworthy risk until 2014,’’ the board’s investigation found. “By early 2015, management reported that corrective action was working. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the board was regularly engaged on the issue; however, management reports did not accurately convey the scope of the problem. The board only learned that approximately 5,300 employees had been terminated for sales practices violations through the September 2016 settlements with the Los Angeles City Attorney, the [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] and the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau].”
The report blames senior management, such as former CEO John Stumpf, a decentralized organizational structure and a culture of deference to the business units for missed opportunities in handling the problems sooner.
But the report also notes that the board could have handled things differently, by centralizing the risk function sooner than it did, for example. A decentralized risk framework meant the company’s chief risk officer was reduced to cajoling the heads of the different business units for information, each of whom had their own chief risk officers reporting to them. Also, the board could have required more detail from management.
Wells Fargo has lost unquantifiable sums in reputational costs and damage to its brand. It has paid about $185 million in settlements with regulators and recently paid out $142 million in a class action settlement with customers. It still is grappling with the loss of new customer accounts.
At this point, a board refresh—starting with the directors who polled less than 60 percent of the shareholder vote—might be the right signal to send.