Few business-related topics provoke more passionate discussions than shareholder activism at specific companies. Supporters view activists as agents of change who push complacent corporate directors and entrenched managers to unlock stranded shareholder value. Detractors charge that these aggressive investors force their way into boardrooms, bully incumbent directors into adopting short-term strategies at the expense of long-term shareholders, and then exit with big profits in hand.
Lost in this heated long- versus short-term debate is the significant, real-time impact that such activism has on corporate board membership and demographics. ISS identified a recent surge in its evaluation of refreshment trends at S&P 1500 firms between 2008 and 2016 (see Board Refreshment Trends at S&P 1500 Firms, published by IRRCi in January 2017). This accelerated boardroom turnover coincided with an increase in activists’ success in securing board representation, particularly via negotiated settlements. A recent study of shareholder activism by Activist Insights pegged activists’ annual U.S. boardroom gains at more than 200 seats in 2015 and 2016. While a significant portion of this activism was aimed at micro-cap firms, threats of fights have become commonplace even at S&P 500 companies in recent years.