Friday, June 19, 2015
The book is much more “popular press” than academic, as should be clear from the splashy subtitle “liberating the heroic spirit of business.” There is a bit of academic influence in the appendix and notes, but it is mostly social business advocacy and story telling. In fact, the authors state that the primary purpose of the book “is to inspire the creation of more conscious businesses: businesses galvanized by higher purposes that serve and align the interests of all their major stakeholders.” (pg. 8). The book is interesting, passionate, and may accomplish its primary purpose.
The authors paint a compelling picture of Whole Foods Market and similar companies like Trader Joe's, The Container Store, Costco, and Southwest Airlines. These companies appear to take a long-term view and consider what is best for all their stakeholders. I would have appreciated, however, more attention to the struggles the companies must have faced in attempting to satisfy all of their stakeholders. After finishing the book, I was left wishing the authors would have spent more time discussing how to make decisions in situations where certain stakeholder interests irreconcilably conflict.
I may have more to say about this book in future posts, but as someone who has been researching in the social business area for a few years, I continue to be amazed at the proliferation of terms. The authors describe four tenants of their term “conscious capitalism”: (1) Higher Purpose (beyond just generating profits); (2) Stakeholder Integration (“optimizing value creation for all of them”); (3) Conscious Leadership (leaders “motivated primarily by service to the firm’s higher purpose and creating and creating value for all stakeholders.”); (4) Conscious Culture and Management (culture and management centering around traits like “trust, accountability, transparency, integrity, loyalty, egalitarianism, fairness, personal growth, and love and care.) (pg. 32-35)
The authors try to differentiate their term of “conscious capitalism” from similar terms, as discussed below. While some of the distinctions make sense, I wish that these various social business movements would agree on a common vocabulary and work together more consistently. Unfortunately and ironically, many associated with the social business movements seem especially territorial. Perhaps, the lack of focus on financial returns causes some to seek personal returns in the form of recognition and influence. Quotes in the bullet points below come from pages 38, 291-97 in the book.
- Corporate social responsibility. The authors note that CSR is often “grafted onto traditional business model, usually as a separate department or part of public relations," but for Conscious Capitalism “[s]ocial responsibility is at the core of the business.” The authors are not the first to note this difference between CSR and the more recent social business movements, and I think it is a fair distinction, at least in some cases.
- Natural Capitalism. According to the authors, “Conscious Capitalism included the valuable insights that natural capitalism offers about the environment and transcends them with a more comprehensive view of the entire business and economic system.” The authors seem to suggest that their term is more holistic, not merely focused on the environment, and more focused on human ingenuity than simply preserving the environment.
- Triple Bottom Line. The authors seem to think that Conscious Capitalism has a more inclusive view of stakeholders than TBL’s “people, profit, planet.” I don’t think the authors make their case for this distinction, failing to note stakeholders that don’t fall in one of TBL’s three buckets. The authors then note that their theory pays more attention to “purpose, leadership, management, and culture.” I also think this is stretching for distinctions; most of the TBL proponents I know recognize the importance of “purpose, leadership, management, and culture.” The authors admit that the TBL movement is "a fellow traveler," but I think TBL and Conscious Capitalism are roughly synonymous.
- Shared-Value Capitalism. SVC, championed by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, focuses on creating economic value for shareholders and all of society. Conscious Capitalism, the authors claim, does not only focus on economic value like SVC, but expands to human values and includes “emotional and spiritual motivators” lacking with SVC.
- Creative Capitalism. Bill Gates popularized this term in 2008 at the World Economic Forum, claiming that certain companies can use variable pricing to make products affordable to those at the “base of the pyramid” and still make a profit. The authors claim Creative Capitalism seems like an “add on” similar to CSR, only applies certain companies, and over-focuses on the reputational benefits, rather than changing the core business purpose.
- B Corporations. The authors do not seem optimistic about “[certified] B corporations” which they unfortunately use interchangeably with “benefit corporations,” even though the two terms are distinct. The main reason the authors offer for their pessimism toward B corporations is that “B corporations appear to violate the important principle that owners [shareholders] should ultimately control the corporation.” Most legal readers will notice problems with that statement. First, shareholders don’t control corporations, boards of directors do (see, e.g., DGCL 141(a)). Second, to the extent the authors are talking about aspects of corporate governance like the shareholders’ ability to elect the directors and bring derivative suits, those powers remain for shareholders of both certified B corporations and benefit corporations. Giving the authors (neither of whom are legally trained) the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they are talking about the deprioritization of shareholders in the benefit corporation statutes (shareholders are simply one of many stakeholders that the board must consider in its decision making). The authors seem concerned that shareholders, the most vulnerable of the stakeholders (according to them), will be relatively unprotected. This is a fairly common concern, but the Conscious Capitalism model seems to deprioritize shareholders as well, and even in traditional corporate law, the business judgment rule provides significant protection to the board of directors. Delaware law does give shareholders more power in the M&A context, but benefit corporations and corporations committed to Conscious Capitalism that are incorporated in a constituency statute state seem like they would operate similarly, even in the M&A context. In short, the authors do not clearly express a strong grasp of the benefit corporation statutes, and throughout the book the authors actually seem to advocate operating corporations in line with the benefit corporation statutes (considering all stakeholders in decisions).
While I am a bit critical in some of my comments above, I did appreciate learning more about Whole Foods Market and similar companies. The companies discussed are some of my favorite companies and are certainly making the world better for many of their stakeholders. The book also made a number of claims that spurred additional thinking, for which I am grateful, and which made reading the book worthwhile.
Friday, June 12, 2015
By my count, the version updated 6/3/15, lists the following number of entities (for a total of 500 benefit companies):
- 1 professional benefit corporation
- 74 benefit corporations
- 425 benefit LLCs
Oregon is one of a very few states that provides for the formation of benefit LLCs, in addition to benefit corporations. As you can see, the benefit LLCs are a good bit more popular than the benefit corporations, likely because most social enterprises are small, closely-held entities that should probably be LLCs instead of corporations.
LLC law is generally flexible enough to allow a social purpose and Oregon's corporation law expressly allows corporations to be formed for a social purpose, so the main draw seems to be branding/signaling based rather than law based.
These are still relatively small numbers in the grand scheme, but it was a fairly short time ago that there were fewer than 500 total benefit companies nationwide.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Last week, I attended the National Business Law Scholars Conference at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, NJ. It was a great conference, featuring (among others) BLPB co-blogger Josh Fershee (who presented a paper on the business judgment rule and moderated a panel on business entity design) and BLPB guest blogger Todd Haugh (who presented a paper on Sarbanes-Oxley and over criminalization). I presented a paper on curation in crowdfunding intermediation and moderated a panel on insider trading. It was a full two days of business law immersion.
The keynote lunch speaker the second day of the conference was Kent Greenfield. He compellingly argued for the promotion of corporate personhood, following up on comments he has made elsewhere (including here and here) in recent years. In his remarks, he causally mentioned B corporations and social enterprise more generally. I want to pick up on that thread to make a limited point here that follows up somewhat on my post on shareholder primacy and wealth maximization from last week.
June 10, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (6)
Friday, June 5, 2015
The New Yorker recently ran an interesting article entitled Patagonia’s Anti-Growth Strategy. Patagonia is a certified B corporation and a California benefit corporation.
As a customer, Patagonia is my favorite company for casual/outdoor clothing, and one of my favorite companies in any industry. Initially, I thought Patagonia's clothes were insanely expensive, but their clothes have been much cheaper on a “cost-per-wear” basis than any other clothes I have bought. In an age of cheap products and rampant consumerism, Patagonia is striking a chord with those who wish to buy fewer, quality products.
A taste of the article follows, but go read the entire thing.
The company’s anti-materialistic stance ramped up on Black Friday, 2011, with a memorable full-page advertisement in the Times that read, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The ad’s text broke down the environmental costs of the company’s top-selling R2 fleece sweater and asked consumers to think twice before buying it or any other product. The attention the ad received helped to bump Patagonia’s 2012 sales significantly. . . . Patagonia is trying second-hand-clothing sales at its shop in Portland, Oregon, and has made product repair and recycling a growing part of its business model. It recently invested in Yerdle—a Web startup whose stated mission is to reduce new-product purchases by twenty-five per cent—as a way for people, and even the company itself, to swap or give away used Patagonia gear.
Despite being a customer for about two decades, I haven’t needed the Patagonia repair services yet, but I love the idea.
As the article above mentions, “[a]ll of this would be jet fuel for the engines of modern cynicism, if not for the fact that Patagonia, a privately owned corporation now in its fifth decade, has a distinguished record of environmental philanthropy and investment.” Patagonia may eventually experience mission drift, but the trust they have created with their customers is invaluable. While Patagonia’s anti-consumerism stance may seem to be against the firm's self-interest, “anti-consumerism is clearly helping to build the Patagonia brand. Indeed, the company is seeing double-digit annual growth.”
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
As a semi-closeted (now "out," I guess) foodie* and as a lover of "things Brazilian" (including Havaianas flip-flops and Veja sneakers, as well as churrascarias and caipirinhas), I read with interest a recent electronic newsletter headline about a thriving Brazilian chef. I clicked through to the article. I loved it even more than I had thought I would.
The article tells the story of an emergent Brazilian chef and restauranteur, Rodrigo Oliveira, and his flagship establishment (Mocotó), as promised. That was great. But that was not all. The piece also told the story of a business run using a "holistic business model."
Today, Oliveira focuses on his employees as much as his customers. . . . Oliveira pays for his employees’ part-time education. And their kids’ health care. And daily jiujitsu and yoga classes in the room he built upstairs. It’s a rarely encountered, holistic business model that contributes to his restaurant’s roaring success. . . .
. . .
Beneath the street level they’re boring out new dormitories for employees, for a quick nap and shower between jiujitsu, work and class. . . .
He also seems to be attentive to the greater local community beyond his customers and employees, preferring (to date) to expand his business locally rather than into larger metropolitan areas. Good business? Yes! But it seems like more than that. This business appears to have more than one bottom line!
Perhaps this is not a remarkable story, in the end. Regardless, I wanted to share it. Another Brazilian social enterprise, Ashoka, gets a lot of attention.** But it's now clear to me that we can and should look beyond larger, storied examples of social entrepreneurship for other manifestations of social enterprise in action in Brazil.
**Actually, much to my surprise, Ashoka is a U.S. organization that networks social enterprises across the globe. So, it's not even Brazilian! Having been in Rio teaching for a few summers and known of its presence there, I assumed it was a Brazilian organization. Please forgive the error. Hat tip to co-blogger Haskell Murray for pointing it out to me.
Friday, May 15, 2015
Low pay, however, is only one of many problems facing low-wage earners.
After hearing Charlotte Alexander (Georgia State) present on this co-authored paper - Stabilizing Low-Wage Work: Legal Remedies for Unpredictable Work Hours and Income Instability – I have become convinced that unpredictable work hours is a significant issue. The article is well worth reading.
Unpredictable work hours can be problematic for many people – attorneys in BigLaw for example – but low-wage earners do not have disposable income to throw at the problem. Childcare and transportation, for example, become even more of a challenge when work hours are not stable and not set in advance. Unpredictable, inconsistent work hours also hamper economic mobility by making it difficult or impossible to take classes or get a second job.
For more on this issue, listen to MIT Operations Management Professor Zeynep Ton’s talk at the Aspen Institute. Her discussion of Mercadona, a low-cost supermarket based in Spain (discussion starts at 14:50), and QuickTrip, a convenience store with gas stations (discussion starts at 17:30) was quite interesting. Corporate social responsibility often seems dominated by high-end companies like Patagonia and Whole Foods. It is easier to be socially responsible when you are charging $700 for a jacket or 39% more on certain food items (according to one study in Boston). Mercadona, however, offers some of the lowest prices in Spain. Mercadona employees receive their schedules one month in advance and have stable schedules. Mercadona also pays almost double the minimum wage (plus a bonus). As a result, Mercadona’s turnover is an extremely low 3.4%. Likewise, QuickTrip seems to compete well on price, but also appears to take relatively good care of its employees.
Individual firms could and should address this issue of unpredictable work hours voluntarily, but the market may prove ineffective in this area and legislative action may be needed.
Friday, May 8, 2015
On May 12, 2015, I will present at a breakout session of the Center for Nonprofit Management's 8th Annual Bridge to Excellence Nonprofit Conference. My talk will focus on the legal issues facing entities with multiple bottom lines.
If interested, you can register here.
As you can tell from the conference description, this conference is designed for nonprofit and community leaders. From the conference schedule, it appears that I will be the only professor presenter. While I enjoy academic conferences, and find them useful, I also think it is important for professors to engage with practitioners. Professors should share the knowledge they have uncovered and should also listen to the current, practical concerns.
Thursday, May 7, 2015
This coming Monday, I will be presenting – virtually – at the above titled conference. My piece of the presentation will cover my recent research on benefit corporation reporting.
Further information is available here and reproduced below. Personally, I am looking forward to hearing from the many impressive speakers, including Sara Burgess, the Regulator of Community Interest Companies in the UK.
May 11, 2015
08:00 AM - 06:00 PM ET
Morgan Lewis, in conjunction with the Impact Investing Legal Working Group, invites you to join us for an exclusive all-day conference featuring panels of leading lawyers who work in the area of impact investing—in business, academia, government, multilateral development institutions, and nonprofit organizations and foundations.
Topics will include:
How are investors aggregating capital for impact investing?
What are the newest social finance innovations in impact investing?
How can we build a robust legal community of practice in impact investing?
How can we advance the development of regulatory regimes and government policies that promote impact investing?
8:00 - 8:30 AM | Registration
8:30 - 6:00 PM | Program
6:00 PM | Networking reception
CLE credit in CA (1.25 hours), FL, IL, MA, NY, NJ, PA, VA, and TX is currently pending approval.
For more information/registration
Please contact Gail Sobha Lynes at +1.617.951.8607 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, May 1, 2015
Almost three years ago, I helped organize a conference on social enterprise law. (The law review members, especially Rachel Bauer and Sam Moultrie, were responsible for most of the organizing and did an excellent job).
My co-bloggers Joan Heminway and Marcia Narine were among the speakers.
Also joining us was Michael Pirron of Impact Makers, one of the first certified B corporations in Virginia. While Impact Makers was a certified B corporation at the time of the conference, it was organized as a Virginia nonstock corporation; now Impact Makers is organized as a benefit corporation. Michael did an excellent job serving as a panelist and the keynote speaker.
Recently, I saw Michael back in the news. He transferred ownership of his company (valued at approximately $11.5 million) to two foundations. As Michael mentioned to me over e-mail, this was not a radical departure from his previous business model for Impact Makers. Previously, Impact Makers donated 100% of its profits to area charities, so this move just formalized their previous commitment. Impact Makers has given away approximately $1 million to date.
At the University of Connecticut social enterprise and entrepreneurship conference I attended and presented at last week, Mike Brady (Greyston Bakery) and Jeff Brown (Newman's Own) presented. Jeff called Newman's Own a "grandfather of social enterprise" Both companies started business in 1982, well before heavy use of the term "social enterprise."
Also, both Greyston Bakery and Newman's Own appear to have adopted a structure where a foundation owns the stock of their for-profit company. You can learn a bit more about the structure of Newman's Own here. Greyston Bakery's annual reports are here and you can view a video about Greyston Bakery (and their client Ben & Jerry's).
From a legal perspective, Greyston Bakery and Impact Makers are benefit corporations, under New York and Virginia law respectively (in addition to being certified B corporations.) Newman's Own, however, is a traditional c-corporation. With foundations owning 100% of the stock, the benefits of using the benefit corporation form are likely limited. There still may be some branding value and most benefit corporation statutes require consideration of a broad group of stakeholders, which might prevent the foundation from focusing on a smaller subset of stakeholders. That said, shareholders are the one expected to bring lawsuits to enforce this consideration requirement in the benefit corporation statutes, so as a practical matter, the benefit corporation and c-corporation forms may operate similarly when wholly-owned by one or more foundations.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
OK. So, Tennessee is not Delaware. But the Tennessee legislature and Supreme Court have been busy bees this spring on business law matters. Here's the brief report.
In the last week of the legislative term, the Tennessee Senate and House adopted the For-Profit Benefit Corporation Act, about which I earlier blogged here, here, and here. Although I remain skeptical of the legislation, it looks like the governor will sign the bill. So, we will have benefit corporations in Tennessee. We'll see where things go from there . . . .
The Tennessee legislature also passed a technical corrections bill for the Tennessee Business Corporation Act. The bill was drafted by the Tennessee Bar Association's Business Entity Study Committee (on which I serve and to which I have referred in the past), a joint project of the Tennessee Bar Association's Business Law Section and Tax Law Section. The governor has already signed this bill into law.
Separately, in a bit of a stealth move (!), the Tennessee Supreme Court recently announced the establishment of a business court, an institution many other jurisdictions already have. The court is being introduced as a pilot project in Davidson County (where Nashville resides)--but only, as I understand it, to iron the kinks out before introducing the court on a permanent basis. Interestingly, the Tennessee Bar Association Business Law Section Executive Council was not informed about the new court project until its public announcement in the middle of March. Although we found that a bit odd, the "radio silence" is apparently attributable to the excitement of the Tennessee Supreme Court to get the project started effective as of May 1 and the deemed lack of need for a study on the subject before proceeding. Regardless, I think it's safe to say that the bar welcomes the introduction of a court that specializes in business law cases as a matter of principle. Again, we'll see where it goes from here.
A few reflections on all this follow.
Friday, April 24, 2015
These types of social impact funds seem to becoming more and more common. Social impact funds, however, vary greatly. Some social impact funds appear to be primarily focused on profits (while simply avoiding some "sin stocks"), others focus on serious social enterprises, and others fall somewhere in-between.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Last week the New York Times hosted a debate about the Public Corporation's Duty to Shareholders. Contributors include corporate law professors Stephen Bainbridge, Tamara Belinfante, Lynn Stout, David Yosifan and Jean Rogers, CEO of Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.
This collection of essays is not only more interesting than anything that I could write, but it is also the type of short, assessable debate that would be a great starting point for discussion in a seminar or corporations class.
Friday, April 17, 2015
At the end of next week, I will be at the University of Connecticut School of Business and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center for their Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Conference.
Further information about the conference is available here, a portion of which is reproduced below:
In October 2014, Connecticut joined a growing number of states that empower for-profit corporations to expand their core missions to expressly include human rights, environmental sustainability, and other social objectives. As a new legal class of businesses, these benefit corporations join a growing range of social entrepreneurship and enterprise models that have the potential to have positive social impacts on communities in Connecticut and around the world. Designed to evaluate and enhance this potential, SE2 will feature a critical examination of the various aspects of social entrepreneurship, as well as practical guidance on the challenges and opportunities presented by the newly adopted Connecticut Benefit Corporation Act and other forms of social enterprise.
Presenters at the academic symposium on April 23 are:
- Mystica Alexander, Bentley University
- Norman Bishara, University of Michigan
- Kate Cooney, Yale University
- Lucien Dhooge, Georgia Institute of Technology
- Gwendolyn Gordon, University of Pennsylvania
- Gil Lan, Ryerson University
- Diana Leyden, University of Connecticut
- Haskell Murray, Belmont University
- Inara Scott, Oregon State University
Presenters at the practitioner conference on April 24 are:
- Gregg Haddad, State Representative, Connecticut General Assembly (D-Mansfield)
- Spencer Curry & Kieran Foran, FRESH Farm Aquaponics
- Sophie Faris, Community Development, B-Lab
- James W. McLaughlin, Associate, Murtha Cullina LLP
- Michelle Cote, Managing Director, Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
- Mike Brady, CEO, Greyston Bakery
- Jeff Brown, Executive Vice President, Newman’s Own Foundation
- Justin Nash, President, Veterans Construction Services, and Founder, Til Duty is Done
- Vishal Patel, CEO & Founder, Happy Life Coffee
- Anselm Doering, President & CEO, EcoLogic Solutions
- Dafna Alsheh, Production Operations Director, Ice Stone
- Tamara Brown, Director of Sustainable Development and Community Engagement, Praxair
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." -- John Godfrey Saxe
This is a brief legislative update on the progress of Tennessee's current bills, introduced in the house (HB0767--amendment not yet filed) and senate (SB0972), to institute the benefit corporation as a distinct for-profit business corporation in the State of Tennessee. The links provided are to the current versions of the bill, which reflect a significant amendment, as described below.
As you may know from my prior posts (including here and here), I am a benefit corporation skeptic. Please read those posts for details. And within the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) Business Law Section Executive Council and Business Entity Study Committee (our state bar committee that vets changes to Tennessee business associations and other business laws), I am not alone. We have rejected bills of this kind several times over the past few years when the matter has been put to us for review by the TBA. This year was no different. We opposed the benefit corporation bills that were introduced in Tennessee this year, too.
What was different this time around, was that the folks at B Lab had gotten the attention of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tennessee, who appear(ed) to have some misunderstandings about the current state of Tennessee corporate governance law and came to push for adoption of the bill in committee in both houses of the legislature. Given that we were late to the party and that the members of our TBA Council and Committee are very busy lawyers, our efforts to re-educate members of the relevant committees were not as effective as we would have liked. But we ultimately were afforded two weeks to attempt to write an amended bill--one that better reflected Tennessee law and norms.
Now, any of you who have worked on a project like this before know that two weeks is not enough time to do a professionally responsible job in spotting and tracking down all of the issues that the introduction of a new business form routinely and naturally raises. Heck. We couldn't even get all the constituents around the table that we would want around the table to debate and review the legislation in two weeks! [It seems hardest to find a plaintiff's bar lawyer to sit in with us, but we found a great one for our recent work on the Tennessee Business Corporation Act (TBCA).] Our requests for more time to work on the proposed legislation were, however, rejected.
So, we set out to make a better sausage . . . .
Thursday, April 2, 2015
In connection with the current legislative debate on benefit corporations in Tennessee (which has been gathering momentum since I last wrote on the topic), I have repeatedly asked about the impetus for the bill. Of course, there is the obvious "push" for benefit corporation legislation by the B Lab folks, who have gotten the ear of folks at the Chamber, convincing them that the legislation is needed in Tennessee to protect social enterprise entities from the application of a narrow version of the shareholder wealth maximization norm (a conclusion that I dispute in my earlier post). But what else? What real parties in interest in Tennessee, if any, have expressed a desire that Tennessee adopt this form of business entity?
There is anecdotal information from one venture attorney that some Tennessee entrepreneurs have indicated a preference for the benefit corporation form and have specifically requested that their business be organized as a Delaware benefit corporation. Leaving aside the Delaware versus Tennessee question, why are these entrepreneurs looking to organize their businesses as benefit corporations? Where does this idea come from?
Friday, March 20, 2015
The biggest recent news in the social enterprise world is that certified B corporation Etsy is going public.
Despite confusing press releases, Etsy is not legally formed as a benefit corporation, they are only certified by B Lab. (In one of the coolest comments I have received blogging, an Etsy representative admitted that they confused the "benefit corporation" and "certified B corporation" terms and corrected their public statements). If you are new to social enterprise, the differences between a "certified B corporation" and a "benefit corporation" are explained here.
Etsy, however, will face a dilemma as noted in this article sent to me by Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown). The B Lab terms for certified B corporations require Etsy to convert to a public benefit corporation (Delaware's version of the benefit corporation) within four years of the Delaware law becoming effective. Delaware's public benefit corporation law went effective August 1, 2013.
So, unless B Lab changes its terms, Etsy will lose its certified B corporation status if it does not convert to a public benefit corporation on or before August 1, 2017.
Given that converting to a public benefit corporation while publicly-traded would be extremely difficult--obtaining the necessary vote (currently 90% in Delaware, with a proposal being considered to move it back to the more typical 2/3), paying dissenters' rights, etc.--I imagine Etsy will need to make this decision before it goes public. Perhaps, Etsy will postpone the decision, and hope that they can just quietly lose their certification in 2017 or that B Lab will make an exception for them. Etsy's CEO is on record promising social responsibility, but we will see whether that promise includes maintaining B Lab certification and making a legal entity change.
Many interesting issues would stem from a publicly-traded benefit corporation; I have added a number of items to my article ideas list this morning.
This Etsy story is one I hope to follow, so stay tuned.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Contrary to widespread belief, corporate directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders. This is reflected in the acceptance in nearly all jurisdictions of some version of the business judgment rule, under which disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity, even if this does not entail seeking to maximise short-term shareholder value. Where directors pursue the latter goal, it is usually a product not of legal obligation, but of the pressures imposed on them by financial markets, activist shareholders, the threat of a hostile takeover and/or stock-based compensation schemes.
Prof. Bainbridge is with Delaware Chief Justice Strine in that profit maximization is the only role (or at least only filter) for board members. As he asserts, “The relationship between the shareholder wealth maximization norm and the business judgment rule, . . . explains why the business judgment rule is consistent with the director's "legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders."
CJ Strine has noted that the eBay decision, which I have written about a lot, says that if “you remain incorporated in Delaware, your stockholders will be able to hold you accountable for putting their interests first.” I think this is right, but I remain convinced that absent self-dealing or a “pet project,” directors get to decide that what is in the shareholders best interests.
I have been criticized in some sectors for being too pro-business for my views on corporate governance, veil piercing law, and energy policy. In contrast, I have also been said to be a “leftist commentator,” in some contexts, and I have been cited by none other than Chief Justice Strine as supporting a “liberal” view of corporate norms for my views on the freedom of director choice.
When it comes to the Business Judgment Rule, I think it might be just that I believe in a more hands-off view of director primacy more than many of both my “liberal” and “conservative” colleagues. Frankly, I don’t get too exercised by many of the corporate decisions that seem to agitate one side or the other. I thought I’d try to reconcile my views on this in a short statement. I decided to use the model from This I Believe, based on the 1950s Edward R. Murrow radio show. (Using the Crash Davis model I started with was a lot less family friendly.) Here’s what I came up with [Author's note, I have since fixed a typo that was noted by Prof. Bainbridge]:
I believe in the theory of Director Primacy. I believe in the Business Judgment Rule as an abstention doctrine, and I believe that Corporate Social Responsibility is choice, not a mandate. I believe in long-term planning over short-term profits, but I believe that directors get to choose either one to be the focus of their companies. I believe that directors can choose to pursue profit through corporate philanthropy and good works in the community or through mergers and acquisitions with a plan to slash worker benefits and sell-off a business in pieces. I believe that a corporation can make religious-based decisions—such as closing on Sundays—and that a corporation can make worker-based decisions—such as providing top-quality health care and parental leave—but I believe both such bases for decisions must be rooted in the directors’ judgment such decisions will maximize the value of the business for shareholders for the decision to get the benefit of business judgment rule protection. I believe that directors, and not shareholders or judges, should make decisions about how a company should pursue profit and stability. I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies, and I believe the decision to expand or change a business model is the decision of the directors and only the directors. I believe that respect for directors’ business judgment allows for coexistence of companies of multiple views—from CVS Caremark and craigslist to Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—without necessarily violating any shareholder wealth maximization norms. Finally, I believe that the exercise of business judgment should not be run through a liberal or conservative filter because liberal and conservative business leaders have both been responsible for massive long-term wealth creation. This, I believe.
Friday, March 6, 2015
Social enterprise has made two relatively recent appearances in the mainstream media:
(1) David Brooks on "How to Leave a Mark" in the NYT.
(2) George Roberts on "Bringing a Business Approach to Doing Good" in the WSJ.
In addition, a few law schools have started focusing more on social enterprise, including through the Georgetown Social Enterprise and Nonprofit Clinic and the Social Enterprise Law Association at Harvard Law School.
Interest in social enterprise is and has been increasing, but the legal frameworks could still use significant work as my co-blogger Joan Heminway noted last month.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Fordham Journal of Corporate and Financial Law recently published a March 6, 2014, lecture from Former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, Continuity and Change in Delaware Corporate Law Jurisprudence (available on Westlaw, but fee may apply). As an aside, I'll note that it appears to have taken a full calendar year for this to get published (at least on Westlaw), which seems crazy to me. If there's any question why legal blogs can fill such a critical role in providing timely commentary on legal issues, this is a big part of the answer.
In the lecture, Chief Justice Steele discusses three main areas: (1) multi-forum jurisdiction, (2) shareholder activism, and (3) the Nevada, Delaware, and North Dakota Debate (a "competition for charters").
As to multi-forum jurisdiction, he makes the unsurprising point that Delaware courts are of the view that first impressions of the Delaware General Corporation Law or other "internal affairs doctrine" issues should be handled in Delaware courts. Of note, he explains that the Delaware constitution (art. IV, § 11(8)) now allows federal courts, the top court from any state, the SEC, and bankruptcy courts to certify questions directly to the Delaware Supreme Court. This option is one that lawyers litigating such cases in other forums won't want to miss.
With regard to shareholder activism, Chief Justice Steele states,
In my preferred system for the world, and I think in the minds of all Delaware judges, engaged if not antagonistic stockholders add positive value as a check on director authority and are a catalyst for corrective accountability, so long as their efforts focus on improved performance and not the advancement of political or personal agendas--a major caveat in my view. Delaware courts, it seems to me, will increasingly recognize the benefits that engaged investors bring to the table.
State corporate law provides a ready means for resolving any conflicts by, for example, dictating how a corporation can establish its governing structure. See, e.g., ibid; id., §3:2; Del. Code Ann., Tit. 8, §351 (2011) (providing that certificate of incorporation may provide how “the business of the corporation shall be managed”). Courts will turn to that structure and the underlying state law in resolving disputes.
The corporate form in which [an Delaware corporation] operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment. . . . Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, . . . directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
Thus, in Delaware a for-profit corporation cannot promote or practice the religious views of even a majority of directors or shareholders where such actions do not promote the value of the corporation for shareholders.
Finally, as to the Nevada, Delaware, North Dakota debate, Chief Justice Steele questions the value of Nevada allowing "charters to exculpate directors for breaches of duty of loyalty," because he thinks such a massive change in widely held views of fiduciary duty law could invite federal "meddling." I think he's exactly right on this. He notes with skepticism the North Dakota Publicly Traded Corporations Act because there are only two companies that have adopted the law, but the law's failure in the competition for charter does not raise the same concerns of a race to the bottom (my words) that Nevada's law provides.
I think Chief Justice Steele's article provides interesting and useful insight into the workings of the Delaware court system, and I recommend the sort read. I just wish I had seen it about nine months ago.
Monday, February 23, 2015
I serve on the Tennessee Bar Association Business Entity Study Committee (BESC) and Business Law Section Executive Committee (mouthfuls, but accurately descriptive). The BESC was originated to vet proposed changes to business entity statutes in Tennessee. It was initially populated by members of the Business Law Section and the Tax Law Section, although it's evolved to mostly include members of the former with help from the latter. The Executive Committee of the Business Law Section reviews the work of the BESC before Tennessee Bar Association leadership takes action.
Just about every legislative session of late, these committees of the Tennessee Bar Association have been asked to review proposed legislation on benefit corporations (termed variously depending on the sponsors). A review request for a bill proposed for adoption for this session recently came in. Since I serve on both committees, I get to see these proposed bills all the time. So far, the proposals have pretty much tracked the B Lab model from a substantive perspective, as tailored to Tennessee law. To date, we have advised the Tennessee Bar Association that we do not favor this proposed legislation. Set forth below is a summary of the rationale I usually give.
February 23, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (18)