Friday, March 25, 2016
I feel badly for Chipotle. When I have taught Business Associations, I have used the chain’s Form 10-K to explain some basic governance and securities law principles. The students can relate to Chipotle and Shake Shack (another example I use) and they therefore remain engaged as we go through the filings. Chipotle has recently been embroiled in a public relations nightmare after a spate of food poisonings occurred last fall and winter, a risk it pointed out in its February 2015 10-K filings. The stock price has fluctuated from $750 a share in October to as low as $400 in January and then back to the mid $500 range. After some disappointing earnings news the stock is now trading at around $471.
Clean Yield Group, concerned that the company will focus only on bringing its stock back to “pre-crisis levels,” filed a shareholder proposal March 17th asking the company to link executive compensation with sustainability efforts. The proposal claims that the CEO was overpaid by $40 million in 2014 and states in part:
A number of studies demonstrate a firm link between superior corporate sustainability performance and financial outperformance relative to peers. Firms with superior sustainability performance were more likely to tie top executive incentives to sustainability metrics.
Leading companies are increasingly taking up this practice. A 2013 study conducted by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute and the Sustainable Investments Institute found that 43.4% of the S&P 500 had linked executive pay to environmental, social and/or ethical issues. These companies traverse industry sectors and include Pepsi, Alcoa, Walmart, Unilever, National Grid, Intel and many others…
Investor groups focusing on sustainable governance such as Ceres, the UN Global Compact, and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (which represents investors with a collective $59 trillion AUM) have endorsed the establishment of linkages between executive compensation and sustainability performance.
Even with the adjustments to executive pay incentives announced this week in reaction to Chipotle’s ongoing food-borne illness crisis, Chipotle shareholders have consistently approved excessively large pay packages to our company’s co-chief executives that dangerously elide accountability for sustainability-related risks. This proposal provides the opportunity to rectify this situation.
If shareholders approve the compensation package on our company’s 2016 proxy ballot, by year-end, Mr. Ells and Mr. Moran will have pocketed nearly $211 million for their services since 2011. Shareholders have not insisted upon direct oversight of sustainability matters as a condition of employment or compensation, and the present crisis illustrates the probable error in that thinking.
This week, the Compensation Committee of the Board announced that it would withhold 2015 bonuses for executive officers. It has also announced that executive officers’ 2016 performance bonuses will be solely tied to bringing CMG stock back, over a three-year period, to its pre-crisis level.
This is a shortsighted approach that skirts the underlying issues that may have contributed to the E. coli and norovirus outbreaks that have left hundreds of people sickened, injured sales, led to ongoing investigations by health authorities and the federal government, damaged our company’s reputation, and will likely lead to expensive litigation. For years, Chipotle has resisted calls by shareholders to implement robust and transparent management and reporting systems to handle a range of environmental, social and governance issues that present both risks to operations as well as opportunities. While no one can know for certain whether a more rigorous management approach to food safety might have averted the current crisis, moving forward, shareholders can insist upon a proactive approach to the management of sustainability issues by altering top executives’ compensation packages to incentivize it.
The last sentence of the paragraph above stuck out to me. The shareholder does not know whether more rigorous sustainability practices would have prevented the food poisonings but believes that compensation changes incentivizing more transparency is vital. I’m not sure that there is a connection between the two, although there is some evidence that requiring more disclosure on environmental, social, and governance factors can lead to companies uncovering operational issues that they may not have noticed before. Corporate people are fond of saying that “what gets measured gets treasured.” Let’s see what Chipotle’s shareholders treasure at the next annual meeting.