Canadian Pacific is a Teachable Governance Moment

The fight for Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) by activist investor Pershing Square demonstrates several shortcomings in the public company governance model and what can be learned from private equity. CP and RIM are significantly underperforming Canadian companies. There are numerous others. The question is where is the board?

The current corporate governance model is largely focused on compliance, not on value-creation. Most regulations short shrift the board’s strategic and value creation role. Canadian guidelines address strategic planning in one sentence, at 3.4 (b). The NYSE rules do not contain the word “strategy.” Educational programs are overwhelmed by auditors, lawyers and pay consultants. Boards have become bureaucratic traffic cops and the trend is continuing after 2008. How would codes and educational programs look if they were drafted and taught by long-term active investors?

Regulators in large measure are to blame. They overemphasize structural board independence at the expense of industry knowledge and shareholder mindset. The separation of chair and CEO and having a plethora of independent directors accomplishes little unless there is a clear understanding of roles. Most chair and director position descriptions are little more than high-level one or two page compliance documents written by lawyers designed to keep directors at bay. Directors are selected for independence and profile because that’s what the regulators want. Yet scholars know research does not support independent directors and the creation of shareholder value. What is missing? What can we learn from activist investors and private equity?

Here are some facts about CP according to Pershing Square’s materials and presentation:

  • All directors own < 1% of stock and it was given to them, not bought;
  • Four COOs and three CFOs have been replaced in the last five years;
  • CP has consistently underperformed across industry peers, yet the CEO met 17 of 18 objectives set by the board;
  • The cost of management as a percentage has doubled;
  • There has been a moving of targets by the board, and these targets have been meaningfully lower than CN’s;
  • There has been a lack of rail experience on the board, shareholder representation or equity ownership; [CP did not have any railroad expertise to drive the value creation process on the board (other than the CEO) until Bill Ackman first launched his activist efforts]
  • If one director had $100M of his or her own wealth invested, the CEO would be replaced, Pershing Square said;

Deep dives such as the above by sophisticated activists such as Den Loeb and Bill Ackman need to be undertaken by boards themselves. This dive need not be overly complex. Look at Ironfire Capital’s analysis of the New York Times. How many boards have the skills to do this, I wonder? The approach Bill Ackman brings is not exclusive in its applicability to under-performers. The fundamental question is how many companies are under-performing relative to their potential, just not to the extreme extent of CP? And does this speak to a more robust corporate governance model on a wider scale?

We can learn from private equity and the nature of board engagement and shareholder value creation. According to experienced chair and activist investor, Henry Wolfe, “Numerous studies have been done of the performance and value creation results of private equity portfolio companies compared to their public company peers. At least in all that I have seen, the studies clearly demonstrate that private equity companies significantly outperform.” Wolfe goes on to say, “The implications of these comparative results for public companies is or at least should be staggering to those who serve on or advise public company boards. Adding fuel to this point Ernst & Young and other studies, including by McKinsey, found that the primary driving force for this out-performance was the PE Corporate Governance Model.” See the following link to an Egon Zehnder Private Capital Thought Leadership article regarding the work they did to learn more about a McKinsey study on Private Equity.

Michael Jensen at Harvard from his panel role in the 2007 Morgan Stanley Roundtable on Private Equity and its Import for Public Companies, said “In fact, my sense is that the due diligence process that the buyout firms go through in vetting and pricing a deal causes those principals and their managers to learn more about the business than has ever been known since it was a public company.”

This should not be the case if the public governance model worked. A key disconnect is director-shareholder accountability, which is not the case in private equity.

The nexus between public company boards and shareholders who own the company is limited at best, and this affects motivation and accountability. Boards continue to entrench themselves through staggered elections, at the expense of shareholder value. Most boards do not actually engage with shareholders directly other than at a perfunctory annual meeting. Shareholders cannot even propose directors in the proxy circular. A recent proposal by a group of Canadian investors is recommending (see the “Roxborough Initiative”) not only that shareholders select but also that shareholders – not management – compensate directors. This would address incentives and accountability. Director performance reviews should also be shared with shareholders and shareholders should have a say on board chairs. We are a long way from this type of meaningful board-shareholder accountability.

It is time to push the envelope and rethink the current model of corporate governance, in terms of how directors are selected, directors’ fundamental understanding of the business and the value creation process, the role of the non-executive chair, and director accountability to shareholders.


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