Friday, July 8, 2016
Like Anne and Joan, I enjoyed the Berle Symposium and found it incredibly valuable. As they have mentioned, former Chancellor Chandler's presentation was definitely a highlight, and it was affirming to hear Delaware law described as I understand it, if much more eloquently expressed than I have managed. Former Chancellor Chandler appeared to make clear that directors of Delaware firms could be at risk if they admit to taking an action that is not aimed at (eventually) meeting the short or long-term financial interests of shareholders.
Former Chancellor Chandler's description of Delaware law, both in the symposium and in his eBay case, coupled with the law review writings of Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine, confirm, in my mind, that benefit corporations could be useful, at least in Delaware, for entrepreneurs who want to admit pursing strategies that are not aimed at benefiting shareholders in the short or long run. For example, I think some companies, like Patagonia, make decisions that benefit the environment, even though the directors may honestly believe that financial costs will far exceed financial benefits, even in the long-term.
Interestingly, however, much of what I heard from the B Lab representatives at the symposium was about how benefit corporations can do just as well, if not better, than traditional corporations from a financial perspective. This obviously poses an empirical question that we may get better answers to in the coming years. But if you can "do well by doing good" then then entrepreneurs, even under Delaware law, seem likely to avoid legal problems given the protection of the business judgment rule and the argument that financial benefits will eventually follow from their society-focused actions.
The benefitcorp.net website has a list of reasons to become a benefit corporation, which are:
Reduced Director Liability
Expanded Stockholder Rights
A Reputation For Leadership
An Advantage in Attracting Talent
Increased Access to Private Investment Capital
Increased Attractiveness to Retail Investors and Mission Protection as a Publicly Traded Company
I am a bit surprised that more of these reasons are not focused on societal and environmental benefit (and am not sure why mission protection is limited to publicly traded companies, especially when there are no stand-alone publicly traded benefit corporations today -- though there will likely soon be some soon.) I question whether all of these benefits are true. For example, I have heard mixed things about benefit corporations from investors, and the liability issue is completely untested. But if all of these things are true, and social entrepreneurs do get better access to capital and an advantage attracting employees, etc., then I think the benefit corporation form is less necessary as a legal matter. Maybe the thought is that benefit corporations have expressive value or that they provide an extra layer of protection. But, as a legal matter, if you can justify your social actions by pointing to potential long-term financial benefits, you do not really need a new form, even in Delaware (and, of course, many other states are even more permissive with social actions). Maybe benefit corporation proponents see the real value in the M&A context when facing Unocal/Revlon, but Page & Katz showed ways around those issues, especially if focused on long-term value. Entrepreneurs could also incorporate outside of Delaware, in a state that has expressly rejected Revlon.
Personally, while it is possible for some firms to do well by doing good, I think social entrepreneurs will often be openly sacrificing financial returns---they will be doing good through purposeful financial sacrifice. As such, an benefit corporation option, at least in states like Delaware.
There was quite a lot of good discussion at the Berle Symposium, and I may have more to write about it in later posts.