Company boards have long spoken to investors in indirect ways, through their votes and organizational performance. But as powers shift to large investors and governance norms have changed, investor groups have demanded more one-on-one conversations with bank directors.
Allowing directors to speak to investors comes with risk, and not just due to the potential for legal missteps. The director becomes a public representative of the bank and anything he or she says will be scrutinized, resulting in possible backfire.
“You can’t really say you’re not speaking for the company,” says Peter Weinstock, a partner at the global law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. “You’re speaking for the company.”
But in an age where activist shareholders have an increased presence and institutional investors such as Blackrock and State Street Corp. have greater power, organizations find that some investors expect this one-to-one interface with directors. When done right, it can ease tension among the investor base, allowing management to maneuver more freely. When done wrong, however, it can result in proxy fights and changes to the board and management.
The topics that investors care about impact the moves that directors and boards make. Board discussions on compensation, for example, are becoming more important. Last year saw the lowest level of shareholder support for executive pay — only 87.4% of S&P 500 companies received shareholder approval in advisory voting during proxy season, according to PwC. That indicates a higher bar for boards to get shareholder buy-in for executive compensation.
Companies also must deal with an increasing amount of activist shareholder proposals. PwC reports there was a 17% increase in shareholder proposals last year. Out of 288 proposals related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters, a popular topic last year, 41 proposals passed.
One way to provide context for the company’s efforts on those matters: director conversations.
Institutional investors and shareholder analysis groups have turned their focus to three big concerns – audit, governance and compensation – all of which reside at the board level. With questions surrounding those specific concerns coming from many different groups, banks have turned to so-called “roadshows.” In those organized conversations, directors speak to shareholders or investor services groups about specific governance or audit topics. During those roadshows, board members stick to a prewritten script.
“The advent of the one-way listening session allayed director fear,” says Lex Suvanto, global CEO at the public relations firm Edelman Smithfield. “There isn’t much risk in what they shouldn’t say.”
Certain concerns may require more direct conversations with a specific investment group. When entering those conversations, it’s important to remember what information the shareholders want to glean. “Understand who you are speaking to and what they are all about,” says Tom Germinario, senior managing director at the financial communication firm D.F. King & Co. “Is it a governance department or a portfolio manager, because there’s a difference?”
Each investor will come to the conversation with different goals, investment criteria and questions they want addressed. It’s on the company to prepare the director for what types of questions each investor may need answered.
During those different calls, banks should ask to receive the questions ahead of time. Many investors will provide this, since they understand that the director cannot run afoul of fair disclosure rules, a set of parameters that prevent insider trading. But not all investors will provide those insights upfront.
To head off such concerns, the bank’s communications or investor relations team should run a rehearsal or prepare the director with possible questions, based on the reason for the meeting.
The investors will look for anything that might give them insight. Directors that veer off script could run afoul of what they can legally disclose. Plus, the tenor of the answers must match what the CEO has said publicly about the company. Without practice, the conversation can unwittingly turn awry.
“If a director is on the phone with an investor and something is asked that the company hasn’t disclosed, the director can table that part of the discussion,” says Weinstock. “The company can then make a Regulation Fair Disclosure filing before following up with the investor on a subsequent call. That’s an option if the company wants to release the information.”
It’s important to remember the practice will also protect you, since you will have a significant amount riding on the conversation as well. “Directors may reveal that they’re not in touch with important investor priorities,” says Suvanto. “Directors need to understand and be fully prepared to represent the values and behaviors [of the company].”
Suvanto adds that many directors would have been better not to speak at all than to go into a room with a large institutional investor, unprepared. In a public bank, such a misstep can lead to a proxy battle, which may result in the director (or many directors) being replaced by members the investors view as more favorable or knowledgeable.
The conversation also works differently, depending on the size of the bank and whether it’s a private or public institution. Institutional investors likely will focus on larger banks. Small banks may not account for an oversized spot in the institutional investor’s portfolios. Instead, for smaller companies, it’s often about getting the CEO and chief financial officer in front of investors to encourage investment. Often, this does not need a director’s voice.
For private banks, however, there are certain moments where directors may be asked to step in. If, say, an organization has questions about its auditing practices. Or what if a competitor bank has major governance violations? To address questions from investors concerning those issues, it may be advisable to have the committee head for the specific concern speak to investors about the bank’s practices.
But even a private bank cannot ignore concerns about releasing information that’s meant to stay within the board room. “It’s important to realize that information does not belong to a director,” says Weinstock. “It’s also important to realize that private companies could have insider trading violations.”
What else could go wrong? A director could overpromise when the company isn’t ready to address the issue. This can happen in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) space with regards to addressing social concerns, for example. If a director commits to social commitments that the company cannot yet adopt, it can pit the director against the board or management. Either the company will decide to adopt the promised measures, or the director will have misled the investor.
“A director should never get on the phone alone,” says Germinario. “You never want an investor to misconstrue a promise.”