As investors increase their focus on environmental, social and governance matters — otherwise known as ESG — the acronym is also making waves when it comes to M&A due diligence, according to Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP. But while the ESG acronym may be a newer one to the industry, many of the issues under the broad ESG umbrella are familiar to bankers.
Numerous areas fall under ESG. These include climate risk, energy and water use, and green-focused products and investments (environmental); organizational diversity, and employee and community engagement (social); and board composition and independence, shareholder rights, and ethics and compliance (governance). Cybersecurity and data privacy are also key elements, sometimes classified as social and sometimes as governance.
A typical bank M&A announcement tends to mention cultural alignment, and many ESG elements — particularly under the social and governance umbrellas — are strongly informed by an entity’s culture. Culture frequently comes up in the annual survey; this year, 64% of responding directors and executives identify a complementary culture as a top-five attribute in a seller. When asked about assessing the strategic fit of a target, 89% of respondents overall say they’d evaluate cultural alignment.
“Anytime you talk about an acquisition from the acquirer’s perspective, culture’s a big concern,” says Patrick Vernon, a senior manager at Crowe. “Culture [and] social and governance [factors] go hand in hand.”
For the acquirer, these considerations include cultural fit, employee integration and appropriate compensation to retain talent. For example, a seller where lenders work only on commission might not be a good fit for a buyer that where commission pay may be lower or nonexistent. Understanding those elements often calls for a qualitative assessment.
“If it’s a public company, I’d want to look at the human capital management disclosure in the 10K,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner in the regional and community banking consulting practice at McLagan. “What are some of the highlights, features, programs, results [and] areas for focus that the seller has been involved in?”
Effective Nov. 9, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires companies to disclose “any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business,” which would include attracting, developing and retaining talent. The SEC didn’t provide further specific guidance, and an analysis conducted by the law firm Gibson Dunn finds a lack of uniformity in disclosures by S&P 500 companies. Most of these firms include diversity & inclusion statements in the disclosure, but fewer provide hard metrics about the company’s efforts. Most disclose talent development efforts, and more than half provide general statements around recruiting and retaining talent. Less than half disclose employee engagement efforts.
Human capital management disclosures can yield clues about the quality of talent as well as their expectations around compensation, benefits and development. Can the acquiring bank effectively support the acquired employees? Can the acquirer adopt some attributes from the seller to better manage talent in their own organization?
Companies that value diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) may also look at the target’s progress in these areas. Bank Director’s 2021 Compensation Survey, conducted earlier this year, found 37% of respondents reporting that their banks focused more on DE&I initiatives in 2020 compared to 2019. However, 42% lack a formal program — especially banks below $1 billion in assets. Those that do track progress primarily focus on the percentage of women and minorities at different levels of the organization.
Daniela Arias, a senior audit manager at Crowe, leads the firm’s ESG services in the U.S. and has been consulting banks on these issues; she also works with private equity firms. She’s increasingly seeing ESG considered in due diligence, along with operational and financial matters. That includes DE&I. “What policies are there in place for diversity?” she says. “What are they doing to track the data of who’s making it to leadership? Do they have development programs in place to help move the needle on diversity?”
Governance —including board composition and practices — is also critically important, says Appelbaum. “Are there problems?” she asks. Is governance strong at the target? What are the weaknesses? For sellers, she suggests asking, “Do you want to align with a company that doesn’t do things well?”
Compliance gaps can help acquirers identify red flags in a target, adds Arias. “If an organization does not have the critical, basic compliance issues down, that is already indicative that there are so many other areas that are not being thought about.”
Vernon points out that there are still a lot of unknowns in the ESG space, especially relative to examining climate risk. “It’s been a lot of wait and see,” says Vernon. “We’re not quite sure, from a regulatory standpoint, what requirements are actually going to be there in the banking space.”
Acquisitions can add strength to an organization, from new business lines and markets to talent. From an ESG perspective, the post-deal bank could emerge stronger. “For some, combining two organizations enhances the ESG picture,” says Appelbaum. One organization may have strengths when it comes to data security; the other may have a great training program.
While ESG won’t drive the selection of a target, an acquirer should understand the progress the seller has made — and whether there will be any issues. Appelbaum recommends starting with the target’s ESG policy and determining whether it’s aligned with the buyer. Also, look for feedback the seller has received from large investors and other stakeholders on ESG. “What’s been done to make headway with those institutional investors?” she says.
Arias helps companies consider their ESG roadmap, identifying where they are and where they want to go. “There are so many existing processes [and] operations that are ESG-related and … need to be brought together into one cohesive structure,” she says. Companies need to understand where they’re strong on ESG and where they need to improve. Once they have that picture, they can then ask, “Where do we need to be for organizations of our size within our industry?”
The banking industry may be in the early stages on ESG, but a strong program could become a competitive advantage. “From a seller’s perspective, in my opinion, the best way to execute a good deal and get that good price is to figure out what your competitive advantage is,” says Vernon. A seller could also be swayed by an acquirer with a strong ESG reputation that will have a positive impact on the seller’s community and employees. “On a go-forward basis, you could have a competitive advantage in ESG,” he adds.
And Arias advises that banks shouldn’t focus on specific metrics. “Presenting your value from an ESG perspective is not about hitting the metrics,” she says. “It’s about showing progress, transparency, showing where you are, where you intend to go, and what are the steps that you’re going to take to get there.”
For a primer on getting started with ESG, view the video “Starting Your ESG Journey,” part of the Online Training Series. You may also consider reading “ESG: Walk Before You Run” for more considerations on where to start, or “Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics” to explore why your ESG program should include customer financial health. For questions boards should consider asking about climate change, read “The Topic That’s Missing From Strategic Discussions” and “Confronting Climate Change” from the third quarter 2021 issue of Bank Director magazine.
Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, surveyed 229 independent directors, CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $600 billion in assets to understand current growth strategies, particularly M&A. The survey was conducted in September 2021.
Bank Director’s 2021 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Newcleus Compensation Advisors, surveyed 282 independent directors, chief executive officers, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $50 billion in assets to understand talent trends, cultural shifts, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2021.
Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey, sponsored by Moss Adams LLP, received responses from 188 independent directors, chief executive officers, chief risk officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $50 billion in assets. The survey was conducted in January 2021, and focuses on the key risks facing the industry today and how banks will emerge from the pandemic environment.