Archives for posts with tag: Board of Directors

The unusual title of this blog post is from a new book called The Chickenshit Club by Jesse Eisinger. The book’s subtitled is “Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecutes Executives.”  The writer cites several reasons why this is happening.  First, U.S. Attorneys are concerned about their conviction record and shy away from tough corporate cases they could lose, thus the nickname chickenshit. The second reason is even worse. The belief is that a far too cozy of a relationship exists between the government attorneys and the white collar defense lawyers who defend the corporate executives. The issue is that many government attorneys end up working, for far higher salaries later in their careers,  for the very laws firms they have been fighting against.

I have written before that corporate Boards of Directors and senior management are reluctant or afraid to prosecute fellow executives who commit crimes.This is true whether it is internal fraud, breaking security laws or even violating the firm’s ethics or morality code such as with sexual harassment.   Firms are reluctant because it often involves going after one of their own. Firms are afraid because to bring criminal charges because they have to follow through and maybe even testify in court!

So, when you combine the U.S. Government’s unwillingness to charge and try corporate executives and the corporations own reluctance to even report issues to the authorities, what do we have? To paraphrase James Bond, it is a license to steal and commitment securities fraud!

I Hate fraud and especially Management Fraud by those who get paid a lot already. So what is to be done? The federal government is hard to change as we all know. But, if these issues become more known they could end up being debated in law schools and maybe the next group of U.S. Attorneys will handle themselves and their responsibilities better. The corporate problem gets back to another one of my pet peeves, corporate boards.  Board of Directors have to step up and show courage and leadership in properly discipling and prosecuting executives who behave badly. None of this is easy but the present lax attitude to corporate misdoing needs to change.

To paraphrase the Nike logo, Just Do the Right Thing! People’s view of business and government may actually improve.

 

Not many firms have had the continued bad press as Uber has over the past couple years. Sued on their business and employment practices and then on their self-driving car technology. Employees filing numerous sexual harassment and discrimination suits. Now the private Board throws out the Founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick. Mr. Kalanick is a self-described bad boy who admitted before his firing that he needed help managing the company. He is also the person most people believe created and encouraged the firm’s toxic culture.

Uber has fired some twenty managers and brought a couple female executives on board. But all of these measures may be too little and too late.  So what is Uber to do?

Leadership and Culture are the flip side of each other. What Uber needs is not only a new CEO but a new senior management team. Uber should also replace most of the Board, especially the long time Directors.  Mr. Kalanick is no longer CEO but he was allowed to remain on the Board, which is another mistake. Why? Because it will take a new CEO, senior team and Board to create a new corporate culture. This is not an easy or a quick thing to do. Leadership starts at the top and that is the Board. If the existing Board could not figure out the many legal problems and ethical missteps that Mr. Kalanick and his team were subjecting the firm to, they need to be replaced. Actions speak much louder than words. And major cultural change, in this and most cases, must start at the top. The Board is who everyone in a company look to for guidance.

Uber is often cited as an example of industry disruption as taxi cabs are disappearing. But Uber has other capable competitors like Lyft. These competitors may find a way to gain an advantage while Uber tries to rebuild both its Leadership and Culture. We will see if Uber can truly change and survive.

Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal raised some new thoughts about Boards of Directors. This, often little understood group, technically manage the biggest public companies. I have written before on the lack of attention and professionalism of some corporate directors and I keep hoping this governance area will improve! Here are a couple ideas that might help.

One article dealt with the growing trend of large investors, like hedge or private equity funds, who buy a block of a firm’s stock and then trying to force the company to elect a number of their nominees as directors. On the surface the concept sounds good and a way to shake up underperforming  firms. But here is the catch. The people nominated by the outside investor are not subject to any review or disclosure of their positions on critical matters that might impact the target firm. They are just listed as part of the slate of directors that the investor wants. So the shareholders who are asked to vote for the new directors do so with very little useful information. The Journal article suggests that these nominated directors appear at public forums with independent moderators or even some of the current directors to debate views. To make this work the very large institutional equity owners like Fidelity or the California Pension funds would have to insist on this additional step before voting. I really like this idea!

The second article rethought the current trend of having only one corporate officer like the CEO on the Board with all outside independent directors. The concerns here are twofold.  First, in large and diverse businesses the entire board might benefit from more internal knowledge especially during a crisis or new initiative. For example if the firm is about to launch a huge capital or technology project, another corporate officer on the Board might add a lot.  Second, if the Board has only one insider and something happens to that person-health or an unexpected dismissal- the other outside directors may be at a loss as to name their replacement. So the thought is on a board of 10-12 directors having 2 or 3 inside officers might be best. Again this seems like a worthwhile idea.

So as I have said before, the buck stops with the Board of Directors. All the officers report to them and the Board represents the mass of shareholders. The more knowledge shareholders have about directors the better and the more directors know and are comfortable with the senior officer group the better as well.

The Wall Street Journal just published a new article on this subject. A huge money manager, State Street announced it would vote against corporate Board members who are part of company’s nominating committee and do not add women to their Boards. State Street is also placing a statue of a young girl on Wall Street where she will stare at the famous Bull. (I did not make this up!)

In a review of the Russell 3000 index of companies, a quarter of firms have no female directors and over half of the firms have under 15% of women on their Boards.

In my book, The Business Zoo, I commented on what I called the One Third role of Board members. One third of Board members should not be on Boards at all due to lack of valuable background, age or being too busy on other Boards. The second One Third had the potential to be qualified and contribute but for a number of reasons did not; not reading the Board materials ahead or ever making a worthwhile comment. The final One Third led the Board and did a great job.

In my day we only had one or two women on a typical Board of 10 to 12. The women Directors were always in the best One Third category.  Why was this? Did they consider it an honor and a duty to service a firm which was paying them a lot of money? Were they younger and had much more energy and focus? Did they, as women, just work with other people better when given a chance? Of course all of these reasons are true. In fact, State Street’s research shows that in the last five years, Boards with at least three women Directors outperformed those companies with no women Directors. No surprise to me.

So how do we end up with more women on corporate Boards? I am not big on the statue. I do agree that voting pressure on companies and their Boards can help. Boards all have committees to nominate and elect new directors. Most of the committee members are men who nominate other men who they know. The existing women on Boards need to exert some pressure themselves and get on these nominating committees. Then not be shy about suggesting other women. And they can point to studies that show that Boards with more women directors can drive success and higher stock values!

Add on note: I really appreciate everyone who reads this blog and who bought my book on Amazon. I have received some wonderful feedback and am now starting on a second book!

Brad

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the engine emission crisis at Volkswagon (VW). Senior executives of VW acknowledged that their firm had a “culture of tolerance for rule breaking” that lead to this “chain of mistakes”. Although the article did not name exactly who ordered their engineers to install the software to fool the tests, the article did state that it found no evidence that “VW executive or supervisory Boards were involved in the fraud”.

Yeh. Heard that one before. After British Petroleum (BP) had the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf, a top writer from Fortune magazine stated that BP’s long time focus on cost cutting versus safety goes back directly to the Board of Directors. The Gulf spill was proceeded by several major safety events including a huge explosion in Texas that killed a dozen workers. All organizations look for guidance or direction from the top and a Board is the ultimate top. It appears that maximizing profits through cost cutting was a top priority over safety for BP and its Board.

At my old firm, USG Corporation, every meeting, even the Board meetings, started with a review of safety. This goes back to when USG started as a gypsum mining firm. Major accidents, especially deaths, are reviewed in often grisly details. Senior people, including myself, would attend safety dinners when a plant reached an accident free milestone. Safety was a core value at USG Corporation.

Sadly in most of these disasters like BP and VW often a few, token senior people are fired but with huge severance packages. But a lot of staff or line engineers at these firms lose their job and often their livelihoods because of their presumed role.

At VW, the Board and the senior executives looked the other way or showed a tolerance for rule breaking or it would not have occurred. And  German car companies are known for their excellence in their engineering and engines. That makes this all the more unbelievable to me.

In my view, senior executives and Board members must be held to higher standards than they are and at times, they need to bear the blame and responsibility for not focusing on what is right.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Wall Street Journal has a weekly half page devoted to my former professional as a CFO. In a recent edition, they highlighted a new trend of corporate Board of Directors getting actively involved in their firm’s search and hiring of a new Chief Financial Officer. The reasons cited included the increased importance of the CFO role in everything from regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley reporting, to  strategy and deal-making. A final reason was that former CFO’s are increasing looked upon as candidates to become a firm’s CEO.

My reaction to all this? Well, it’s about time! Time that CFO’s are getting the respect so many deserve, as they are often quiet and low key, yet are often the second most critical person in a public company. But more importantly, it’s about time that Boards of Directors are actually acknowledging this and getting involved in this hiring activity.

Historically, in many old line firms, the path to CFO was internally determined. Often it was a matter of paying your dues and moving up through various financial roles in treasury or controllership. If a business and its industry remained stagnant over the 20 plus year period it took to groom a CFO, that was a fine strategy. But businesses and their industries are not stagnant. Competition changes, mergers occur and technologies leap ahead. So the perfect internally- grown candidate of the past may not be best suited for a new environment.

The second way CFOs, and most other internal Officers were chosen, was solely by the Chairman or CEO. This was usually decided by the CEO alone who then informed the Board of his choice. The Board then dutifully elected the person to be CFO. Perhaps the Board knew a little about the person from HR succession charts but the Board rarely got involved in the selection or even with a token interview. This, in my mind, is wrong.

All public corporate Officers, including CFOs, are legally “elected by and serve at the pleasure of the Board”. Directors need to perform some due diligence on this critical personnel task. To do this properly, Boards need to spent time, not just in Board meetings or group dinners, with the senior officers. In fact, I would suggest that most of the countless, large, quarterly Board dinners I ever attended were worthless. Private one-on-one dinners between the various Directors and members of senior management would be invaluable to both parties. This would also allow the Board to have a much better of idea of who they were electing to be the next CFO or CEO. And if the current CEO objects because he or she is paranoid of what a Board member could learn in private from one of his team, then the Board better look very hard at that CEO!

Directors of large public company Boards are paid over $200,000 a year. Many of the problems Directors encounter when senior officers, like CFOs or CEOs, either abruptly resign or are fired for cause could be eliminated if they spent more time upfront getting to know these key people. So, Directors, get involved in hiring new, CFOs and, in some cases, other corporate officers. But also spend some quality time with the senior officers you have in place; it will be well worth your while.

A recent study of women directors on Standard and Poors 1500 company boards was done for the Wall Street Journal by governance researchers at MSCI Inc. Today, women make up about 16% of all these directors which is a slight improvement from 2009 when women were 12.5% of these directors.  Of the 67 firms that have a female CEO, like IBM, General Motors or PepsiCo, those Boards often have three or more women. Remember that most Boards average 8 to 12 directors. So, some slow progress is being made.

My last two public company Boards each had one female director at the time and currently have three women out of a total of 21 positions. These companies and their competitors in the construction and chemical industries are historically under represented by women versus many of the more consumer related firms.

But enough of the statistics, let’s get to the main point. What was my experience with women directors? In a word or two, they were better than many of their male counterparts. Let me list some reasons why.

1. Women directors view their position on corporate Boards as more of an honor and thus take it more serious. This may be because they have fewer opportunities or because they have to really work hard to land the role versus many of the “old boy” overlapping Board networks which still exist. The women directors are usually younger and are on fewer Boards than many of their male counterparts. We once had a male Director resign because he “accidentally” joined a direct competitor’s Board! I doubt that happens much with female Directors.

2. The women directors came better prepared to Board meetings. All companies send the bulk of their meeting documents ahead. Some of our male directors did not even bother to bring these materials probably because they had not read some or all of it and had made no notes. The women directors brought the materials and you could tell they had read them and had made notes.

3. The women directors stayed focused on the matters at hand. Sometime Board meetings, especially unexpected ones by phone can take a long time and it is hard to manage directors when you can’t see them. On these phone meetings, I have had male directors fall asleep and snore, go to a nearby bathroom without closing a door or have a lengthy discussion with their wife about what sandwich they will make them for lunch. Female directors really behave much better as a group!

So when you consider these examples along the fact that women are smarter than men and are more social than men and live longer, they should be on more Boards of Directors! Seriously, they should-but corporate america, like the rest of the world often takes a lot of time to change. I also believe that some men are aware of all the strengths that women can bring to leadership roles but are Afraid to give them the opportunity. And, as we have mentioned before on this blog, fear is not good in Board rooms or in The Business Zoo!

Wall Street Journal 2/27/14: Firms Alter Bonus Playbook and Use Nonstandard Accounting Measures to figure (Management) Payouts

Public company earnings are reported in quarterly and annual reports using what accountants, auditors, and the Security and Exchange Commission call ” generally accepted accounting principles.” These GAAP earnings or a multiple of them, based on how the firm is viewed in the stock market, creates the market price of the stock. Shareholders make money when the stock price increases.

But nowadays some 28% of the largest U.S. public firms calculate Management Compensation using different measures. These firms may start with the reported GAAP earnings but then add back various expenses to make the earnings higher. Some of these add back items can be the cost of stock options (usually to the same group), the write-off of an acquisition premium (or goodwill) even when those same executives may have overpaid to buy another company, and so on.

You are thinking, this is absurd! And very unfair and inappropriate! Well, get used to it. The number of large firms doing this has more than doubled in the last few years and I doubt it will decrease unless the public makes such a stink that the SEC or Boards of Directors force companies to change. One large, public firm in the article, medical products company McKesson’s shareholders voted 3 to 1 to stop this practice, and to require shareholder approval of executive compensation. But their Board of Directors (who are elected by the same shareholders) declined to adopt this measure. The Board cited that they “exercise great discipline” in deciding upon pay. Last year’s McKesson’s calculation started with the reported GAAP earnings of $.75 a share and some how added back enough to get them to $7.21 a share. Now I was the CFO of two large public companies, but even I was impressed with that story of financial artistry!

As discussed several times in my blogs, Shareholders elect the Board of Directors who in turn elect the Senior Executives. Boards rely on the company’s Human Resource people and outside Advisors to decide these matters. In over a decade of Board meetings I attended, only once did a Director get so upset that he convinced the others to throw out an obviously flawed Management Compensation plan. This needs to happen much more often.

In my book, The Business Zoo, I have written that in Board Meetings, the firm’s CEO should explain a new Management Compensation plan and its impact on pay. Not the Senior HR person or the CFO (yes HR often asks us to do controversial things) and certainly not an outside Consultant. If the Board has trouble understanding this new plan, they should hire their own Consultant to explain it or reject the plan until they do understand it and its implications.

And Shareholders, who have the ultimate power, should vote out Boards of Directors who allow practices or compensation plans that enrich Senior Management in ways that are not consistent with Shareholder’s value.

Wall St. Journal article: Activist shareholder Nelson Peltz threatens to break up Pepsi. Their Board says, no thanks.

Facts: The term “activist shareholder” is a Wall Street polite term for a firm that buys a small percent of a company’s stock and then threatens them with either a takeover or demands seats on their Board or something. Many people do this these days. Carl Icahn buys some Apple shares and demands stock buybacks. The activist shareholder does this for a couple reasons: the firm’s stock price seems low to them and they can make a lot of money on re-selling the shares if the price moves up. Corporate Boards really dislike these people.

Facts: Pepsi sales are $66 billion (a Fortune 500 top 50 firm). Half are beverages and half are snacks and cereals. The snacks business is growing well in sales and profits. The original core beverage business much less so, even though this includes Gatorade and Aquafina water. Apparently, selling sugared drinks and old soda pop is not what it was years ago. Pepsi is resisting Mr. Peltz’s suggestions, but said they would increase dividends and buy back more common stock to make him happy (and hopefully go away!) Just don’t mess with our Doritos!

This article reminded me of two related conversations I had recently: First, a friend and I were wondering how very large firms like General Electric are able to manage themselves. Our agreed answer was that they are not. GE sales are $150 billion which ranks it the 8th largest U.S. firm. It is truly a very mixed conglomerate with appliances, energy (nuclear power equipment) , transportation (trains),  aviation (engines) and finance. Very few of these products, industries or markets have anything to do with each other. But GE’s senior management are some of the highest paid corporate people.

Second, a couple friends asked why some giant companies keep buying other businesses trying to get even bigger. One asked if it was due to the egos of the senior people. A very appropriate and partially true comment. But there is another much more basic reason. And it goes back to my old friends in Human Resources and one of my favorite topics, Management Compensation.

You see, most companies set their salaries and bonus levels in large degree based on the size, usually in sales, of a business. When I was at USG Corporation, the headquarters people were paid the most. Then those who ran the largest business, Gypsum Wallboard,  the next most and so on down the line. And this is not just the President or CEO of a given business, it included all the senior management and on down to managers. For in Management Compensation, size does matter. You might ask, isn’t it harder to manage a bigger business? Answer, no; it’s harder to manage a more multi-faceted or troubled business. Or to manage an international firm with many different country locations, laws, and taxes than one giant U.S. based business. You might also ask, shouldn’t a firm’s Board of Directors figure this out and pay what is right? Well, the Board usually relies on outside Compensation Advisors who are hired by….. you guessed it the company’s Senior H.R. person! Not much help there.

So why do people like Nelson Peltz or Carl Icahn go around and threaten these giant firms? To make a fortune off the money they invest in these companies’ common stock, of course! But how do they know that nine times out of ten they will make money doing this? Because they know the following secrets. First, giant firms really do not maximize shareholder value over the long run by buying (often at huge premiums) and then trying to manage very different businesses. Most of these bolted together giant firms would be more successful and worth more as a smaller  firm or as a part of a similar business. Peltz wants Pepsi’s snacks to merge with Mondelez International which used to be Kraft’s snack business before he and some of his activist friends got involved. The second and most important secret is that the Senior Management of most of these giant firms will do anything in their power to get rid of these activist investors so they can continue to collect large salaries and bonuses based on the fact that they are a Fortune 10 or 50 giant firm. It takes a unique CEO and team to decide to breakup this game and take a chance on actually trying to run a smaller company versus a conglomerate. And remember it is tough being a CEO since their average tenure (or corporate life) is 5 years. They may need that money someday.

So good luck to Pepsi and their Senior Management. As an aside, I have not drunk a Pepsi in years (Vitaminwater instead) but I do love their Doritos and Lay’s chips!

Those who have followed this blog know that one of my favorite subjects is Fraud. Mainly the type committed by those who make the most and need the money the least: Management Fraud. But there exists, of course, a million other types of fraud, from con men to tax evaders. Which brings us to this tale of two famous or infamous fraudsters in the news recently.

Dennis Kozlowski was the CEO of a conglomerate called Tyco. Through acquisitions, Kozlowski grew Tyco into a giant public firm which was very successful and respected by Wall Street. He also managed to get paid tens of hundreds of millions in compensation from salary, bonuses and stock awards. But somehow this may not have been enough. Kozlowski was convicted of “stealing” from his company with an elaborate compensation package and outlandish expenses. These included a $30 million company owned NYC condo with, among other things, $6,000 in shower curtains and over $10million in artwork. You would want your luxury condo to look good after all. And let’s not forget the birthday party for his then second wife on the coast of Italy for which Tyco paid half of the $2 million cost. For all of this he was sentenced and just completed serving over 8 years in prison. One of the harshest sentences ever for a corporate executive. Kozlowski reported to a Board of Directors who were supposed to monitor his compensation and certainly understood much of what was going on. None of the Board were charged. Many business writers believed that Kozlowski’s punishment exceeded the crime in these circumstances.

Ty Warner, of Chicago, invented Beanie Babies and has been listed as having over $5 billion in net worth. But what does Ty do? He puts a mere $100 million or so of it into hidden Swiss bank accounts. Over a decade he uses different names including a foundation to evade U.S. income taxes. He has now paid our government over $70 million in back taxes, penalties and interest. The criminal trial just wrapped up. His lawyers argued that this tax evasion was the only mark on his lifelong business and charity record. Seems like a pretty big stain to me. The federal prosecutors argued for at least a year in prison as an example to others. The Chicago judge ignored federal guidelines of up to five years in prison and sentenced Warner to two years of probation and community service.

It was tax evasion that finally got Al Capone, also of Chicago. Tax criminals and corporate criminals should be treated the same. Ironically those who perpetuate most of these Frauds have the most money and the least reason to do so. It is very often more of a second thought or a game to them. So when caught and convicted, they should pay.

So what should we learn from all this? Individuals who commit fraud should be prosecuted with a criminal trial not just an out of court settlement. So often public corporations are afraid to deal with this type of unpleasantness and just announce that someone has left to pursue other interests. If those who commit fraud are not properly dealt with, it sets a terrible example for those who remain. It also allows corporate criminals to go off to some other organization and perhaps act in the same fashion. And it should not matter if the fraud involves expense accounts, kickbacks or tax evasion. Corporate America went through a rough patch with companies like Tyco and Enron grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some of the punishment was excessive in comparison to earlier times or similar crimes. What we need is consistent sentences based on federal or state guidelines. And even those with records as otherwise model citizens or major charitable donors should do prison time if that is the norm. Criminal Fraud should be followed with criminal punishment.