Friday, October 9, 2015
Like many of you, I have been discussing the Volkswagen emission scandal in my business law classes.
Yesterday, Michael Horn, President and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Horn's testimony is here.
West Virginia University, home of co-blogger Joshua Fershee, is featured on the first page of the testimony as flagging possible non-compliance issues in the spring of 2014.
The testimony includes multiple apologies, acceptance of full responsibility, and the statement that these "events are fundamentally contrary to Volkswagen’s core principles of providing value to our customers, innovation, and responsibility to our communities and the environment."
I plan to follow this story in my classes as the events continue to unfold.
My wife and I both have many close family members in South Carolina, so the recent flood has been on our minds recently.
My first thoughts are with all of those affected by the flood.
Relevant to this blog, the flood also reminds me of one of the opening passages in Conscious Capitalism by Whole Food's co-CEO John Mackey. In that passage, Mackey recalls the massive flood in Austin, TX in 1981. At that time, Whole Foods only had one store, and the flood filled that store with eight feet of water. Whole Foods had loses of $400,000 and no savings and no insurance.
Mackey notes that "there was no way for [Whole Foods] to recover with [its] own resources" and then:
- "[a] wonderfully unexpected thing happened: dozens of our customers and neighbors started showing up at the store....Over the next few weeks, dozens and dozens of our customers kept coming in to help us clean up and fix the store...It wasn't just our customers who helped us. There was an avalanche of support from our other stakeholders as well [such as suppliers extending credit and deferring payment]. . . . It is humbling to think about what would have happened if all of our stakeholders hadn't cared so much about our company then. Without a doubt, Whole Foods Market would have ceased to exist. A company that today has over $11 billion in sales annually would have died in its first year if our stakeholders hadn't loved and cared about us--and they wouldn't have loved and cared for us had we not been the kind of business we were." pgs. 5-7
I have two questions. First, what decisions lead to that sort commitment from stakeholders? Second, does this sort of commitment only attach to small businesses?
Asked another way, would Whole Foods still have that sort of stakeholder turnout today? If not, is it because they have not continued to make decisions that inspire stakeholders or simply because they have grown so large that stakeholders assume the company can fend for itself.
It is seemingly easier to make connection with a small, local business than with a large chain, but there do seem to be a few larger companies that still reach their stakeholders on an individual and personal level. Companies, of all sizes, seem to reach stakeholders through making thoughtful decisions in hiring, training, producing, and giving. Authenticity seems to be quite important, as does listening to stakeholders and taking action to address stakeholder needs.
Monday, October 5, 2015
Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown) has the details about the first benefit corporation IPO: Laureate Education.*
She promises more analysis on SocEntLaw (where I am also a co-editor) in the near future.
The link to Laureate Education's S-1 is here. Laureate Education has chosen the Delaware public benefit corporation statute to organize under, rather than one of the states that more closely follows the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation. I wrote about the differences between Delaware and the Model here.
Plum Organics (also a Delaware public benefit corporation) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the publicly-traded Campbell's Soup, but it appears that Laureate Education will be the first stand-alone publicly traded benefit corporation.
*Remember that there are differences between certified B corporations and benefit corporations. Etsy, which IPO'd recently, is currently only a certified B corporation. Even Etsy's own PR folks confused the two terms in their initial announcement of their certification.
October 5, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 2, 2015
Unfortunately, touting a business as socially-consious does not seem to lessen the chance of scandal.
Some companies known for their commitment to social causes have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. A few are noted below:
- BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill
- Plum Organics (a Delaware Public Benefit Corp.) baby food recall
- Whole Food's pricing scandal involving mislabeling weights of food and the company's layoffs
- Volkswagen's emission scandal
Predictably, the media latches onto these stories and claims of hypocrisy fly. See, e.g., Here's The Joke Of A Sustainability Report That VW Put Out Last Year and Whole Foods Sales Sour After Price Scandal and BP's Hypocrisy Problems.
No business is perfect, so what should social businesses do to limit the impact of these scandals? First, before a scandal hits, I think social businesses need to be candid about the fact that they are not perfect. Second, after the scandal, the social business needs to take responsibility and take significant corrective action beyond what is legally required.
Patagonia's founder does a really nice job of admitting the imperfection of his company and the struggles they face in his book The Responsible Company. Whole Foods supposedly offered somewhat above-market severance packages to laid off employees and took some corrective action in the price scandal, but I wonder if they went far enough, especially given the lofty praise for the company's social initiatives by the Whole Food's co-CEO in his book Conscious Capitalism. Whole Foods quickly admitted mistakes in the pricing scandal, but then lost points in my mind when they backtracked and claimed they were a victim of the media.
Even if social businesses take the appropriate steps, I think scandals probably hit them harder than the average business because social businesses have more customer goodwill at risk. I would love to see some empirical work on impact of scandal on social business as compared to those that do not market themselves as such; please pass any such studies my way.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
I recently learned, via e-mail, that Albany Law School has a number of open positions that may interest our readers. The positions, and links to the postings, are provided below:
- Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Information Systems
- Tenure-Track Position in Commercial Law
- Tenure-Track Position in Tax and Transactions Clinic
- Visiting or Contract Faculty Position-Business Transactions and Entrepreneurship
- Visiting or Contract Faculty Position-Patents/Technology Transfer, Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Friday, September 25, 2015
Stephen Choi (NYU), Jill Fisch (Penn), Marcel Kahan (NYU), and Ed Rock (Penn) have posted an interesting new paper entitled Does Majority Voting Improve Board Accountability?
The authors report the dramatic increase in majority voting provisions. In 2006, only 16% of the S&P 500 companies used majority voting, but by January of 2014, over 90% of the S&P 500 companies had adopted some form of majority voting. (pg. 6). As of 2012, 52% of mid-cap companies and 19% of small-cap companies had adopted majority voting provisions. (pg. 7)
For the most part, the spread of majority voting has not led to significant reduction in election of nominated directors. In over 24,000 director nominations from 2007 to 2013, at companies with majority voting provisions, "only eight (0.033%) [nominees] failed to receive a majority of 'for' votes." (pg.4)
The authors claim that their "most dramatic finding is":
a substantial difference between early and later adopters of majority voting. The early adopters of majority voting appear to be more shareholder-responsive than other firms. These firms seem to have adopted majority voting voluntarily, and the adoption of majority voting has made little difference in shareholder-responsiveness going forward. By contrast, later adopters, as a group, seem to have adopted majority voting only semi-voluntarily. Among this group, majority voting seems to have led to more shareholder-responsive behavior. (pg. 2)
As the authors suggest, their article "highlights the importance of segregating early and later adopters of the [corporate governance] innovations, because the reasons for and the effects of adoption may differ systematically between these groups." (pg. 44)
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Last week I blogged about the Yates Memorandum, in which the DOJ announced that any company that expected leniency in corporate deals would need to sacrfice a corporate executive for prosecution. VW has been unusually public in its mea culpas apologizing for its wrongdoing in its emission scandal this week. VW’s German CEO has resigned, the US CEO is expected to resign tomorrow, and other executives are expected to follow.
It will be interesting to see whether any VW executives will serve as the first test case under the new less kind, less gentle DOJ. Selfishly, I’m hoping for a juicy shareholder derivatives suit by the time I get to that chapter to share with my business associations students. That may not be too far fetched given the number of suits the company already faces.
This comes to us courtesy of Rachel Ezrol at Emory Law:
A Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative & Feminism and Legal Theory Workshop Project
A Workshop on Vulnerability at the Intersection of the Changing Firm and the Changing Family
When: October 16-17, 2015
Where: Emory University School of Law
Registration is FREE for Emory students, faculty, and staff.
From the Call for Papers:
Theories of dependency situate the limitations that attend the caregiving role in the construction of the relationship between work and family. The “worker,” defined without reference to family responsibilities, becomes capable of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and responsibility through stable, full-time employment. The privatized family, created by the union of spouses, is celebrated in terms of a self-sufficient ideal that addresses dependency within its own ranks, often through the gendered assumptions regarding responsibility for caretaking. The feminist project has long critiqued these arrangements as they enshrine the inequality that follows as natural and inevitable and cloak the burdens of caretaking from examination or critique. The interpenetrations of the family and the firm have thus been understood as both multiple and wide-ranging. Both this system and the feminist critique of it, however, are associated with the construction of wage labor that arose with industrialization. This workshop will apply the lens of vulnerability to consider the implications that arise from large scale changes in the structure of employment - changes that place this prior ideal of stable self-sufficiency beyond the reach of much of the population.
Issues For Discussion May Include:
This workshop will use vulnerability theory to explore the implications of the changing structure of employment and business organizations in the information age. In considering these changes, we ask in particular:
- How does the changing relationship between employment and the family, and particularly the disappearance of the breadwinner capable of earning a stable “family wage,” affect our understanding of the family and its association with care and dependency?
- How does the changing structure of employment and business organization affect possibilities for reform? What should be the role of a responsive state in directing these shifting flows of capital and care?
- How might a conception of the vulnerable subject help our analysis of the changing nature of the firm? What relationships does it bring into relief?
- What kind of legal subject is the business organization? Are there relevant distinctions among business and corporate forms in regard to understanding both vulnerability and the need for resilience?
- How are business organizations vulnerable? The family? Have these vulnerabilities shifted over time, and what forms of resilience are available for both institutions to respond to new economic realities?
- What, if any, should be the role of international and transnational organizations in a neoliberal era? What is their role in building both human and institutional resilience?
- Is corporate philanthropy an adequate response to the retraction of state regulation? What forms of resilience should be regulated and which should be left to the ‘free market’?
- How does the Supreme Court's willingness to assign rights to corporate persons (Citizen's United, Hobby Lobby), affect workers, customers and communities? The relationship between public and private arenas?
Program Coordinator | Emory University School of Law
1301 Clifton Road | Atlanta, GA 30322 | Room G500 Gambrell Hall
404-712-2420 (t) | 404-727-1973 (f)
Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative
Feminism and Legal Theory Project
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
This post is related to another great post from Tom Rutledge at the Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, Diversity Jurisdiction and Jurisdictional Discovery: The Third Circuit Holds That “Hiding The Ball” Will Not Work. Tom's post is about Lincoln Benefit Life Company v. AEI Life, LLC, No. 14-2660, 2015 WL 5131423, ___ F.2d__ (3rd Cir. Sept. 2, 2015), which is available here.
Lincoln Benefit allows a plaintiff, after a reasonable inquiry into the resources available (like court records and public documents), to allege complete diversity in good faith, if there is no reason to believe any LLC members share the same state of citizenship. Thus, the diversity claim can be made on "information and belief." Tom explains that
While it may do nothing to address the fact that diversity jurisdiction may be unavailable consequent to de minimis indirect ownership . . . it does limit the ability of a defendant to “hide the ball” as to its citizenship while objecting that the other side has not adequately pled citizenship and therefore diversity.
This concern arises out of the fact that LLCs, as unincorporated associations, are treated like partnerships for purposes of federal diversity jurisdiction, meaning that an LLC is a citizen of every state in which it has a member. Thus, if an LLC has members that are partnerships or other LLCs, then a plaintiff would need to drill down all the way until they find get to natural people or corporations to know all the states in which the LLC is a citizen. (As a reminder, under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, federal diversity jurisdiction requires that the dispute both involve more than $75,000 and that there be complete diversity between all plaintiffs and all defendants.)
For corporations, the statute provides: "a corporation shall be deemed to be a citizen of every State and foreign state by which it has been incorporated and of the State or foreign state where it has its principal place of business . . . ."
Some may argue that LLCs, with the limited liability shield for all members, are just like corporations and should be treated as such for diversity purposes. I think there is instant appeal to treating LLCs as corporations in that setting, but after further thought, I don't think it's as simple as it looks (at least, not for me). As one who continues to argue that LLCs and corporations are distinct entities, I think there is a real (and valid) difference between "incorporated" as required under § 1332 and the more general term, "formed."
I would agree that one can make a reasonable argument (though I think contrary to § 1332, and not my choice) that where limited liability applies to all unit holders (or members), then the corporation rule for diversity should apply to all entities that are formed (not just incorporated). If so, though, then that would likely include LPs and LLLPs, too, because any entity that requires filing, (i.e., all limited liability entities) could then reasonably be views as "formed" under state law. That is okay, if that's the desired policy, but it's not limited to LLCs in that case.
Still, there are those who would argue that one can interpret "incorporated" in § 1332 to mean "formed," but I think that's wrong. "Formed" has its origins in partnership law. See, e.g., Uniform Partnership Act § 202 (1997) ("Formation of partnership."). Id.§ 202(c) ("In determining whether a partnership is formed, the following rules apply . . . ."). A legislature could make such a change, but it should be a legislative change.
Despite the best efforts of thousands of courts, LLCs are formed, not "incorporated." See Uniform LLC Act § 202(d): "(1) A limited liability company is formed when the [Secretary of State] has filed the certificate of organization and the company has at least one member, unless the certificate states a delayed effective date pursuant to Section 205(c)." As such, under current law for federal diversity, "incorporated" applies to corporations only.
Beyond that, as to LLCs specifically, I think there is a difference between member-managed LLCs and manager-managed LLCs in carrying out the corporate analogy. That is, a manager-managed LLC is (usually) quite comparable to a corporation and a member-managed LLC is more easily compared to a partnership. That raises the question: should there be a control test, if that's really the question, as to how diversity applies? There is no control test for close corporations, either, I would note, and instead a bright line is applied by entity, not control or risk of liability.
Furthermore, if it's just the concept of complete limited liability, I would argue that an LP with a corporate GP (that only operates for the purposes of that LP) is functionally similar to an LLC in terms of liability, yet there seems to be less of a question how we analyze the LP for diversity purposes.
It seems to me Lincoln Benefit got the test right, under current law. Let's see how that goes before we start conflating LLCs and corporations in yet another area.
Friday, September 18, 2015
For many businesses a good online reputation can significantly increase revenue.
Kashmir Hill, who I know from my time in NYC, has done some interesting reporting on businesses buying a good online reputation.
Earlier this week Kashmir posted the results of her undercover investigation into the problem of fake reviews, followers, and friends. When asking questions as a journalist, those selling online reviews insisted they only did real reviews on products they actually tested.
Kashmir then created a make-believe mobile karaoke business, Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express (a/k/a F.A.K.E), and found how easy it was to artificially inflate one's online reputation. She writes:
For $5, I could get 200 Facebook fans, or 6,000 Twitter followers, or I could get @SMExpertsBiz to tweet about the truck to the account’s 26,000 Twitter fans. A Lincoln could get me a Facebook review, a Google review, an Amazon review, or, less easily, a Yelp review.
All of this for a fake business that the reviewers had, obviously, never frequented. Some of the purchased fake reviews were surprisingly specific. In a time when many of us rely on online reviews, at least in part, this was a sobering story. It was somewhat encouraging, however, to see Yelp's recent efforts to combat fake reviews, albeit after a 2015 article by professors from Harvard Business School and Boston University showed roughly 16% of the Yelp reviews to be suspicious or fake.
Go read Kashmir's entire article, it will make you even more skeptical of reviews you read online and small businesses with tens of thousands of friends/followers.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Last week I ventured a few blocks from Belmont's campus to our neighbor Vanderbilt University Law School for their conference on The Future of International Corporate Governance.
One of the many interesting papers presented was Independent Directors in Singapore: Puzzling Compliance Requiring Explanation by Dan Puchniak and Luh Luh Lan, both of the National University of Singapore.
The entire paper is worth reading, but I want to share three take-aways with our readers.
"[O]nly a handful of jurisdictions [roughly 7%] have ever adopted the American concept of the independent director (i.e., where directors who are independent from management only— but not substantial shareholders—are deemed to be independent)." (pg. 6)
Singapore adopted an American-style definition of "independent director" in 2001, which did not include independence from substantial shareholders. Despite this weaker definition of independence in a jurisdiction with much more concentrated shareholding than the U.S., Singapore enjoyed relative success through "functional substitutes" that limited the private benefits of control. According to the authors, these "functional substitutes" include social relationships in Family Controlled Firms ("FCFs")" and legally imposed limits on the controlling government shareholder in Government Linked Companies ("GLCs").
Despite relative success with the American-style definition of "independent director," Singapore changed its definition "independent director" to require independence from management and 10%+ shareholders in their 2012 Corporate Code (effective at the start of 2015). This change seems prompted, at least in part, by scandals involving S-Chip companies (non-Singapore based companies that are listed on the Singapore Exchange.) The authors suggest that these S-Chip companies do not have the same "functional substitutes" as the FCFs and GLCs.
The article includes a helpful history of Singapore's recent corporate codes, and is a useful article for comparative corporate governance research. I do wonder if the "functional substitutes" explain quite as much as the authors suggest, but I highly recommend the article, especially for those interested in international corporate law.
September 11, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Family Business, Haskell Murray, International Business, International Law, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
A while back, the CLS Blue Sky Blog featured a post by Michael Peregrine on an article authored by Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine (Documenting The Deal: How Quality Control and Candor Can Improve Boardroom Decision-making and Reduce the Litigation Target Zone, 70 Bus. Law. 679 (2015)) offering pragmatic advice to corporate directors in deal-oriented decision making. Michael's post summarizes points made by Justice Strine in his article, including (of particular importance to legal counsel) those set forth below.
- "Counsel can play an important role in assuring the engagement of the strongest possible independent financial advisor, and structuring the engagement to confirm the provision of the full breadth of deal-related financial advice to the board; not simply the delivery of a fairness opinion or similar document."
- "[I]n the M&A process, it is critical to be clear in the minutes themselves about what method is being used, and why."
- "Lawyers and governance support personnel should be particularly attentive to documenting in meeting minutes the advice provided by financial advisors about critical fairness considerations or other transaction terms, and the directors’ reaction to that advice."
- "[P]laintiffs’ lawyers are showing an increasing interest in seeking discovery of electronic information that may evidence the attentiveness of individual directors to materials posted on the board portal."
Michael concludes by noting the thrust of Justice Strine's points--that "a more thoughtful approach to the fundamental elements of the M&A process will enhance exercise of business judgment by disinterested board members, and their ability to rely on the advice of impartial experts." All of the points made reflect observations of the Chief Justice emanating from Delaware jurisprudence. Michael also notes that the points made by Justice Strine have application to decision making in other forms of business association as well as the corporation.
I could not agree more with the thesis of the post and the article. Maybe it's just my self-centered, egotistical, former-M&A-lawyer self talking, but good lawyering can make a difference in M&A deals and the (seemingly inevitable) litigation that accompanies them. I wrote about this in my article, A More Critical Use of Fairness Opinions as a Practical Approach to the Behavioral Economics of Mergers and Acquisitions, commenting on Don Langevoort's article, The Behavioral Economics of Mergers and Acquisitions. We should be teaching this in the classroom as we frame the lawyer's role in M&A transactions. I use a quote from Steve Bainbridge to introduce this matter to my Business Associations, Corporate Finance, and Cross-Border M&A students:
Successful transactional lawyers build their practice by perceptibly adding value to their clients’ transactions. From this perspective, the education of a transactional lawyer is a matter of learning where the value in a given transaction comes from and how the lawyer might add even more value to the deal.
Stephen M. Bainbridge, Mergers and Acquisitions 4 (2003). Great stuff, imv. I am sure this quote or one like it is in the current version of this book somewhere, too. But I do not have that with me as I write this. Perhaps if Steve reads this he will add the current cite to the comments . . . ?
At any rate, I want to make a pitch for highlighting the role of the lawyer in guiding the client through the legal minefields--territory that only we can help clients navigate most efficaciously. As business law educators, we have a podium that enables us to do this with law students who are lawyers-in-training about to emerge from the cocoon-like academic environment into the cold, cruel world in which fiduciary duty (derivative and direct) and securities class action litigation is around every transactional corner. Let's give them some pointers on why and how to take on this task!
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Limited liability companies (LLCs) are often viewed as some sort of a modified corporation. This is wrong, as LLCs are unique entities (as are, for example, limited partnerships), but that has not stopped lawyers and courts, including this nation's highest court, from conflating LLCs and corporations.
About four and a half years ago, in a short Harvard Business Law Review Online article, I focused on this oddity, noting that many courts
seem to view LLCs as close cousins to corporations, and many even appear to view LLCs as subset or specialized types of corporations. A May 2011 search of Westlaw’s “ALLCASES” database provides 2,773 documents with the phrase “limited liability corporation,” yet most (if not all) such cases were actually referring to LLCs—limited liability companies. As such, it is not surprising that courts have often failed to treat LLCs as alternative entities unto themselves. It may be that some courts didn’t even appreciate that fact. (footnotes omitted).
I have been writing about this subject again recently, so I decided to revisit the question of just how many courts call LLCs “limited liability corporations” instead of “limited liability companies.” I returned to Westlaw, though this time it's WestlawNext, to do the search of cases for the term "limited liability corp!". (Exclamation point is to include corp., corporation, and corporations in my search, not to show excitement at the prospect.)
The result: 4575 cases use the phrase at least once.
That means that, since May 2011, 1802 additional cases have incorrectly identified the definition of an LLC. (I concede that some cases may have used the term to note it was wrong, but I didn't find any in a brief look.)
Even the United States Supreme Court published one case using the incorrect phrase, and it was decided around three years after my article was published. See Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S. Ct. 746, 752, 187 L. Ed. 2d 624 (2014) ("MBUSA, an indirect subsidiary of Daimler, is a Delaware limited liability corporation."). (Author's note: ARRRRGH!) The court also stated, "Jurisdiction over the lawsuit was predicated on the California contacts of Mercedes–Benz USA, LLC (MBUSA), a subsidiary of Daimler incorporated in Delaware with its principal place of business in New Jersey." Id. (emphasis added). (Author's Note: Really?)
This opinion was written by Justice Ginsberg, and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion that did not, unfortunately, concur in judgment but disagree with the characterization of the LLC. The entire court at least acquiesced in the incorrect characterization of the LLC!
It appears things have to get worse before they can get better, but I will remain vigilant. I’m working on an article that builds on this, and it will hopefully help courts and practitioners keep LLCs and corporations distinct.
In the meantime, I humbly submit to Chief Justice Roberts, and the rest of the Court, that there are already some useful things in law reviews.
September 8, 2015 in Business Associations, Case Law, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Law Reviews, Lawyering, LLCs, Partnership, Research/Scholarhip, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
As many readers already know, I teach Corporate Finance in the fall semester as a three-credit-hour planning and drafting seminar. The course is designed to teach students various contexts in which valuations are used in the legal practice of corporate finance, the key features of simple financial instruments, and legal issues common to basic corporate finance transactions (including M&A). In the process of teaching this substance, I introduce the students to various practice tips and tools.
As part of teaching M&A in this course and in my Advanced Business Associations course, I briefly cover the anatomy of an M&A transaction and the structure of a typical M&A agreement. For outside reading on these topics, I am always looking for great practical summaries. For example, Summary of Acquisition Agreements, 51 U. Miami L. Rev. 779 (1997), written by my former Skadden colleagues Lou Kling and Eileen Nugent (together with then law student, Michael Goldman) has been a standard-bearer for me. In recent years, practice summaries available through Bloomberg, LexisNexis, and Westlaw (Practical Law Company) have been great supplements to the Miami Law Review article. In our transaction simulation course, which is more advanced, I often assign part of Anatomy of a Merger, written many moons ago by another former Skadden colleague, Jim Freund. Just this past week, I came across a new, short blog post on the anatomy of a stock purchase agreement on The M&A Lawyer Blog. Although I haven't yet given the post a review for teaching purposes, it is a nice summary in many respects and makes some points not made in other similar resources.
I will be revisiting my approach to the M&A part of my Corporate Finance course in the coming weeks. I am curious about how others teach M&A in a context like this--where the topic must be covered in about three-to-five class hours and include practice points, as well as a review of doctrine, theory, and policy. I am always interested in new materials and approaches that may reach more students better. I invite responses in the comments that may be useful to me and others.
Friday, August 28, 2015
Back in January, I joined Planet Fitness. The $10/month membership seemed too good to be true. Most gyms I had joined in the past had cost 3-5X that amount, and the equipment looked pretty similar. Also, the advertisement of No Commitment* Join Now & Save! (small font – *Commitments may vary per location) gave me pause.
Like a good lawyer, I read all the fine print in the membership contract, looking for a catch. There wasn’t really a catch – except for a small, one-time annual fee (~$30), if I did not cancel before October.
I signed up, enjoyed the gym, and canceled a few months later, as soon as the weather outside improved. (When I exercise, which is not as consistently as some of my co-bloggers, it is mostly just running, and I prefer to run outside if the weather is decent).
So, in total, I paid around $30 for three months of access to a single location of a decent gym.
This deal is still somewhat puzzling to me. If Planet Fitness’ business model makes sense, why aren’t more competitors coming close to the $10/month price point?
Here are some of my guesses (based on my brief experience at one location and pure speculation):
- Planet Fitness may have a lower cost structure than some gyms. While I thought the equipment was fine, most of the equipment seemed to be of the “no frills variety.” For example, none of the treadmills at my location had color screens and most of the machines appeared to be base models. I did, however, appreciate that Planet Fitness seemed to pay attention to what machines members use regularly – like treadmills, bikes, and ellipticals – and devoted most of their space to those machines.
- Planet Fitness may be taking a page from the behavioral economist’s playbook. Planet Fitness made signing up extremely easy and automatically deducted the fee from the member's checking account each month. Canceling was slightly more difficult. You had to physically come into the gym to sign cancellation paperwork, or you could snail mail your cancellation. You also had to give a bit of notice, prior to cancellation, to avoid getting charged for the following month. The slight difficulty canceling, coupled with the very low monthly fee might result in some folks forgetting about their membership for a while, simply taking a while to cancel, or purposefully avoid canceling, in hopes they would return to working out. I will say that I did not find canceling at Planet Fitness terribly difficult. However, when I was a member of LA Fitness a number of years ago, I remember their cancellation process, through certified “snail-mail” letter, being a pain.
- Planet Fitness may have been offering $10/month as a "teaser rate" to attract members, with plans to increase rates once members had developed habits of going to their gyms. My gym has already increased the “no commitment” membership to $15/month, while the $10/month membership now comes with a 1-year commitment.
- Judging from these complaints, many members may not understand the annual fee, the commitments (on some plans), and the cancellation requirements. Perhaps these parts of the contracts are helping off-set the low monthly price.
- Planet Fitness may have been trying to increase their membership numbers in advance of their IPO this summer.
This last bullet-point, regarding increasing membership numbers to help their IPO, is the one I find most interesting. If the valuation of certain tech-companies, like Instagram, can be based on, at least in part, “number of users,” I think it is reasonable to assume that “number of members” is an important metric for the valuation of gyms.
On August 5, The Wall Street Journal reported that Planet Fitness priced its IPO at $16/share and raised $216 million. Planet Fitness disappointed in early trading (See here and here), then rose to just under $20/share, and is now back around its IPO price. Given the prevalence of IPO under-pricing, I imagine early investors hoped for better. That said, I plan to follow Planet Fitness and see if their business model is one that works in the long-term. If they have continued success, I imagine other companies will attempt to imitate.
Update: Will Foster (Arkansas) passed along this interesting public radio podcast on gym memberships, which discusses Planet Fitness. Basically, it suggests that many gyms seek members who will not show up regularly (or at all). Maybe this is a key to Planet Fitness' business model; Planet Fitness advertises itself as a "no judgment" gym and even has a "lunk alarm" that it rings on weightlifters who grunt or drop weights. Members seeking "no judgment" may come to the gym much less frequently than serious weightlifters. In fact, at the Planet Fitness featured, 50% never even showed up once. That location has ~6000 members, but a capacity of ~300. Also, this podcast makes sense of why Planet Fitness has free candy, bagels, mixers, massage chairs, and pizza parties - again this attracts less serious gym members and it also gives some value to those who come to the gym only to socialize and eat. Listen to the whole thing.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
As mentioned in my post about law schools hiring in business law areas, we received the following posting from The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.
University of Utah Hiring in Business and Tax Law
The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position at the rank of associate professor beginning academic year 2016-2017. Qualifications for the position include a record of excellence in academics, successful teaching experience or potential as a teacher, and strong scholarly distinction or promise. The College is particularly interested in candidates in the areas of business and tax law. Interested persons can submit an application to the University of Utah Human Resources website at https://utah.peopleadmin.com/postings/43173 (please note that the application requires a cover letter, CV, and list of references). Baiba Hicks, Administrative Assistant to the Faculty Appointments Committee (Baiba.email@example.com or 801-581-5464) is available to answer questions.
The University of Utah is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action employer and educator and its policies prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, religion, age, status as a person with a disability, or veteran’s status. Minorities, women, veterans, and those with disabilities are strongly encouraged to apply. Veterans’ preference is extended to qualified veterans. To inquire further about the University’s nondiscrimination and affirmative action policies or to request a reasonable accommodation for a disability in the application process, please contact the following individual who has been designated as the University’s Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator: Director, Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, 201 South Presidents Circle, Rm. 135, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, (801)581-8365, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. I am married to the best husband and dad in the entire world. (Sorry to slight all of my many male family members and friends who are spouses or fathers, but I am knowingly and seriously playing favorites here!) My husband and I bought the anniversary memento pictured below a few years ago, and it just seems to be getting closer and closer to the reality of us as a couple (somewhat endearing, but aging) as time passes . . . .
Of course, our wedding was not the only important event in 1985. There's so much more to celebrate about that year! In fact, it was a banner year in business law. Here are a few of the significant happenings, in no particular order. Most relate to M&A doctrine and practice. I am not sure whether the list is slanted that way because I (a dyed-in-the-wool M&A/Securities lawyer) created it or whether the M&A heyday of the 1980s just spawned a lot of key activity in 1985.
- Smith v. Van Gorkom was decided. It was my 3L year at NYU Law. I remember the opinion being faxed to my Mergers & Acquisitions instructor during our class and being delivered--a big stack of those goofy curly thermal fax paper sheets--to the table in the seminar room where we met. Cool stuff. As I entered practice, business transactional lawyers were altering their advisory practices and their board scripts to take account of the decision.
- Unocal v. Mesa Petroleum was decided. The Delaware Supreme Court established its now famous two-part standard of review for takeover defenses, finding that "there was directorial power to oppose the Mesa tender offer, and to undertake a selective stock exchange made in good faith and upon a reasonable investigation pursuant to a clear duty to protect the corporate enterprise. Further, the selective stock repurchase plan chosen by Unocal is reasonable in relation to the threat that the board rationally and reasonably believed was posed." (The italics were added by me.) More changes to transactional practice . . . .
- Moran v. Household International was decided. As a result, I spent a large part of my first five years of law practice promoting and writing poison pills that innovated off the anti-takeover tool validated in this case. The firm I worked for was on the losing side of the Moran case, so we determined to build a better legal mousetrap, which then became the gold standard.
- The Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act (RULPA) was amended by the Uniform Law Commission. Among the 1985 changes was an evolution of the rules relating to the liability of limited partners for partnership obligations. The 2001 version of the RULPA took those evolutions to their logical end point, allowing limited partners to enjoy limited liability for partnership obligations even if the limited partners exercise management authority over the partnership.
- Landreth Timber Co. v. Landreth was decided. Stock is a security under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, unless the context otherwise requires. The Court determined that instruments labeled stock that have the essential attributes of stock should be treated as stock in an offering context, even when the stock is transferred to sell a business. Bye-bye "sale of business" doctrine . . . .
That's enough on 30th anniversaries for this post. I am sure you all will think of more 30th anniversaries in business law that we can celebrate in 2015. Feel free to leave those additional 1985 memories in the comments.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Over at the Kentucky Business Entity law blog, Thomas Rutledge discusses a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, affirming a Bankruptcy Court decision that finding that when a member of an LLC with voting control personally files bankruptcy, that right to control the LLC became a vested in the trustee because the right was part of the bankruptcy estate. The case is In re Lester L. Lee, No. 4-15-cv-00009-RLY-WGH, Adv. Proc. No. 14-59011 (S.D. Ind. August 10, 2015) (PDF here).
A key issue was that the bankruptcy filer (Lester Lee) had 51% of the vote, but no shares. The court then explains:
7. . . . [t]he Operating Agreement states . . .
(D) Each member shall have the voting power and a share of the Principal and income and profits and losses of the company as follows:
Member’s Name (Share) (Votes)
Debra Jo Brown (20%) (10)
Brenda R. Lee (40%) (20)
Larry L. Lee (20%) (10)
Melinda Gabbard (20%) (10)
Lester L. Lee (0%) (51)
. . . .
8. . . . Trustee’s counsel became aware of the Debtor’s 51% voting rights as a member, and that pursuant to applicable law, “this noneconomic interest became property of the estate subject to control of the Trustee on the filing of the petition pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 541.”
Here's Rutledge's take:
On appeal, the Court’s primary focus was upon whether the right to vote in an LLC constitutes “property of the estate,” defined by section 541(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code as “all legal or equitable interest of the Debtor in property as of the commencement of the case. After finding that Lee could be a “member” of the LLC notwithstanding the absence of any share in the company’s profits and losses or the distributions it should make, the Court was able to determine that Lee was a member. In a belt and suspenders analysis, the Court determined also that the voting rights themselves could constitute “economic rights in the company” affording him the opportunity to, for example, “ensure his continued employment as manager” thereof.
In a response to Rutledge's blog, Prof. Carter Bishop notes,
The court did not state the trustee could exercise those voting rights. The next step is crucial. If the operating agreement is an executory contract of a multi-member LLC, BRC 365 will normally respect LLC state law restrictions as “applicable law” and deny the trustee the right to exercise the debtor’s voting rights (similar outcome to a non-delegable personal service contract).This was a managing member of a multi-member LLC, so I assume BRC 365 blocks the trustee’s exercise.
Rutledge notes that could be the case, but it's also possible the Lee court was saying we already decided that -- voting rights are part of the estate.
I find all of this interesting and important to think about, especially given my limited bankruptcy knowledge. My main interest, though, is how might we plan around such a situation? Many LLC statutes provide some options.
For example, some states allow those forming an LLC to adopt a provision in the Operating Agreement that makes bankruptcy an event that triggers "an event of dissociation,” which would make the filer (or his or her successor in interest) no longer a member. See, e.g., Indiana Code sec. 23-18-6-5(b) ("A written operating agreement may provide for other events that result in a person ceasing to be a member of the limited liability company, including insolvency, bankruptcy, and adjudicated incompetency."). This raises the question, then, of whether the bankruptcy code trumps this LLC code such that the bankruptcy filing creates an estate that makes it so the state LLC law cannot operate to eliminate the filer as a member.
The answer is no, the state law doesn't trump the bankruptcy code, but the state provision can still have effect. A recent Washington state decision (petition for review granted), relying on Virginia law, determined that where state law dissociates a member upon a bankruptcy filing, the trustee cannot be a member, and thus the trustee cannot exercise membership rights:
[I]nstead of dissociating the debtor, Virginia law operated to dissociate the bankruptcy estate itself. The court concluded, “Consequently, unless precluded by § 365(c) or (e), his bankruptcy estate has only the rights of an assignee.
Given the similarities between Virginia's and Washington's treatment of LLC members who file for bankruptcy, we adopt the reasoning of Garrison–Ashburn [253 B.R. 700 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2000)]. By applying Washington law, we conclude that RCW 25.15.130 dissociates a bankruptcy estate such that it retained the rights of an assignee under RCW 25.15.250(2), but not membership or management rights, despite the provisions of 11 U.S.C. § 541(c)(1).
The court then needed to decided whether § 365 allows a member to retain his or her membership. Under Washington partnership law, as applied to the bankruptcy code, the court explained:
under § 365, the other partners are not obligated to accept an assumption of the partnership agreement. Partnerships are voluntary associations, and partners are not obligated to accept a substitution for their choice of partner. The restraint on assumability also makes the deemed rejection provision of § 365 inapplicable to the partnership agreement. Therefore, § 365(e)'s invalidation of ipso facto provisions does not apply, and state partnership law is not superseded. The debtor-partner's economic interest is protected by other sections of the bankruptcy code, but he no longer is entitled to membership.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Apparently the corporate tax inversion crackdown by the Obama administration is not working. The Financial Times reported this week that three companies have announced plans to redomicile in Europe in just one week. I’m not sure that I will have time to discuss inversions in any detail in my Business Associations class, but I have talked about it in civil procedure, when we discuss personal jurisdiction.
From my recent survey monkey results of my incoming students, I know that some of my students received their business news from the Daily Show. In the past I have used Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert to illustrate certain concepts to my millennial students. Here are some humorous takes on the inversion issue that I may use this year in class. Warning- there is some profanity and obviously they are pretty one-sided. But I have found that humor is a great way to start a debate on some of these issues that would otherwise seem dry to students.
1) Steve Colbert on corporate inversions-1- note the discussion on fiduciary duties
3) Jon Stewart- inversion of the money snatchers and on corporate personhood toward the end.
For those of you who are political junkies like me, I thought I would share a video that I showed when I taught a seminar on corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility. This video focuses on political campaigns, and for a number of reasons, this campaign season seems to be in full gear already. Indeed, Professor Larry Lessig from Harvard is mulling a run for president in part to highlight the need for reform in campaign financing. Below is Stephen Colbert’s take on SuperPACs and political financing.
1) Colbert's shell corporation- note the discussion of the incorporation in Delaware and the meeting of the board of directors
Enjoy, and best of luck for those starting classes next week.
August 13, 2015 in Business Associations, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, International Business, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
This weekend I will be in Panama filling in at the last minute for the corporate law session for an executive LLM progam. My students are practicing lawyers from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Paraguay and have a variety of legal backgrounds. My challenge is to fit key corporate topics (other than corporate governance, compliance, M & A, finance, and accounting) into twelve hours over two days for people with different knowledge levels and experiences. The other faculty members hail from law schools here and abroad as well as BigLaw partners from the United States and other countries.
Prior to joining academia I spent several weeks a year training/teaching my internal clients about legal and compliance matters for my corporation. This required an understanding of US and host country concepts. I have also taught in executive MBA programs and I really enjoyed the rich discussion that comes from students with real-world practical experience. I know that I will have that experience again this weekend even though I will probably come back too brain dead to be coherent for my civil procedure and business associations classes on Tuesday.
I have put together a draft list of topics with the help of my co-bloggers and based in part on conversations with some of our LLM and international students who have practiced law elsewhere but who now seek a US degree:
Agency- What are the different kinds of authority and how does that affect liability?
Key issues for entity selection
- ease of formation
- ownership and control
- tax issues
- asset protection/liability to third parties for obligations of the business /piercing the veil of limited liability
- attractiveness to investors
- continuity and transferability
Main types of business forms in the United States
-Partnership/General and Limited
- C Corporation
- S Corporation
- Limited Liability Company
Fiduciary Duties/The Business Judgment Rule
Basic Securities Regulation/Key issues for Initial Public Offering/Basic Disclosures (students will examine the filings for an annual report and an IPO)
The Legal System in the United States
-how do companies defend themselves in lawsuits brought in the United States?
-key Clauses to Consider when drafting dispute resolution clauses in cross border contracts
Corporate Social Responsibility- Business and Human Rights
Enterprise Risk Management/What are executives of multinationals worried about?
Yes, this is an ambitious (crazy) list but the goal of the program is to help these experienced lawyers become better business advisors. Throughout the sessions we will have interactive exercises to apply what they have learned (and to keep them awake). So what am I missing? I would love your thoughts on what you think international lawyers need to know about corporate law in the US. Feel free to comment below or to email me at email@example.com. Adios!
August 12, 2015 in Business Associations, Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Lawyering, Litigation, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)