Investor Engagement by a Novice

By Judy Sinnwell, OSF Dubuque

A year after retiring to Mount St. Francis in July 2015, the president of our congregation asked if I would facilitate the formation of what came to be the Sisters of St. Francis-Dubuque SRI Working Group. My previous ministry experience was elementary education-administration, adult formation, licensed health practitioner and after-school tutoring in the rural south. Saying ‘yes’ acknowledged that the topic would be interesting and that the ‘working’ part of the label would have me personally engaged in a significantly new arena addressing life’s meaning and purpose.

And so it has! Especially in recent years, as active ownership has effectively increased its voice and influence in the investment arena. Belonging to a faith- and values-based investor coalition, Seventh Generation Interfaith based in Milwaukee, provided education, professional resources, and mentoring in this important work, which for the Dubuque Franciscans, is a way of keeping our congregational mission alive.

Sr. Judy Sinnwell, OSF

One thing I became aware of in those first years was the annual general meeting, the AGM, which a company has for shareholders to weigh in on important company matters. Being a co-owner enabled me to file a shareholder resolution, challenging the company to make improvements in its governance, environmental and social practices. It seemed to be the right thing to do when we had the chance; but at times, it felt a bit intimidating. Recently, that was my experience as a co-filer on a resolution presented at the Tyson Food Inc. annual meeting.

The resolution asked for human rights due diligence in Tyson’s meat packing sites across the country. Iowa has several Tyson sites; one is in Waterloo, where Rath Packing Co. once had a positive reputation and provided a level of economic mobility for Blacks who migrated from the South until it was shut down in 1985. Learning about workers’ conditions during the COVID pandemic in Tyson’s Waterloo plant, where our congregation provided staff at two elementary and a central high school, became a concern and made this an obvious focus of our shareholder action.

When the resolution was made public and the AGM date was nearing, Investor Advocacy for Social Justice (a sister coalition to SGI) began to build awareness among the press and all shareholders who would have a proxy vote on the proposal during the meeting. Reporters from the Des Moines Register and Reuters contacted me for comment, specifically interested in the fact that ‘nuns’ were engaged with a national company; and the Iowa connection because of the negative news that had been previously reported about the Iowa Tyson site and COVID. Their news coverage educated readers about the broad impact of shareholder action. Each request also made me very aware that this experience was not something I anticipated when I agreed to facilitate a group investment effort five years previous!

Was it worth it? Definitely! Yes! Taking the chance to be the voice for marginalized sisters and brothers had to be done. It’s who we are as Dubuque Franciscans. And it stretched me. The support of faith-based and value-based organizations like SGI and IASJ made this possible as an investor. It’s what the world needs right now as one way to reclaim the commitment to the common good and the dignity of the individual person in the economic arena.

Shareholder Resolution Timeline

We often get questions on deadlines associated with the shareholder resolution process. Because SEC rules can be difficult to read, I have outlined the Shareholder Resolution Timeline. This won’t answer all the questions, but will hopefully make the process a little more digestible.

When companies do not engage with their shareholders on salient ESG issues, or they make insufficient progress, shareholders can resort to filing a resolution to be included in the company’s proxy statement and to be voted on at the company’s next annual general meeting (AGM). While the SEC approved several changes to the 14a(8) shareholder resolution process in the final months of the Trump administration, the timeline did not change. 

According to the SEC, a proposal “must be received at the company’s principal executive offices not less than 120 calendar days before the release date of the previous year’s annual meeting proxy statement. Both the release date and the deadline for receiving rule 14a-8 proposals for the next annual meeting should be identified in that proxy statement.” Thankfully, a company’s proxy statement is required to state the deadline for resolution submissions for the following year.

After a proposal is filed, the company has 14 days to ask the proponent to fix any procedural requirements (e.g. proof of ownership, word count) if they are not met. The proponent then has 14 days to resolve those issues. If the proponent does not respond or resolve the issues, the company can appeal to the SEC to exclude the proposal. The company cannot omit the resolution without giving the proponent a chance to resolve the issues, or without an appeal to the SEC.

The company has up to 80 days before its proxy is printed to challenge the proposal via a no-action request to the SEC. The company is required to provide a copy of the no-action submission to the proponents and will be published on the SEC website. After a company files a no-action request, such as substantial implementation or micro management (full list for potential exclusion, here), the proponent can appeal this challenge to the SEC. The SEC’s timeline on this decision is usually driven by the company’s proxy printing; however, the SEC does not have to wait for the proponent’s appeal, and can make a decision at any time. Because of this, it is recommended that the proponent inform the SEC on their plans to respond, and submit their appeal to the SEC as soon as possible, generally within 30 days of receiving the no-action.The SEC no longer has to respond to the company’s no-action request in writing, but rather can post their advice to their website on whether the proposal can be omitted from the company’s proxy. 

Oftentimes after a no-action request is submitted by the company, the proponents decide to withdraw the proposal, usually after they reach a mutual agreement with the company. While the proponent can withdraw their proposal any time up until the day of the shareholder meeting, we generally try to withdraw before the company’s proxy statement is printed. It is sometimes preferable to withdraw the proposal before the SEC sides with the company allowing it to omit the proposal, if the company’s no action arguments are compelling.

If the proponent does not withdraw the proposal, and the SEC does not rule in favor of the company to omit it from the proxy statement, the company has to send a management statement to the proponent. The statement, typically referred to as the company’s opposition statement, must be sent at least 30 days before the proxy is printed, recommending shareholders vote either for or against the shareholder proposal. If the statement of opposition makes any arguments that are false or misleading, the proponent can ask the company to make the appropriate changes. If the company makes any flagrant errors, the proponent can write to the SEC to challenge the statement, though the SEC does not have to respond to this challenge.

In preparation of the annual general meeting (AGM), the proponent has a few opportunities to “build the vote” by informing other shareholders why they should vote in favor of the proposal. 

  • The proponent can write and publish a Proxy Memo, detailing more information on why they filed the resolution, and why voting for the resolution is necessary. This memo is usually published on the proponent’s website and distributed to other shareholders through partner organizations.
  • The proponent can also file an Exempt Solicitation. Similar to a proxy memo, it expands on the proposal and argues why other shareholders should vote in favor of the proposal. This document must be reformatted by a third party to be uploaded to the SEC Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR). It is then distributed to all subscribers to SEC filings for that company and is publicly available. This generally reaches more shareholders, and asset management firms. 

Leading up to the AGM, to continue to “build the vote,” proponents can also reach out to proxy service companies or firms that prepare company reports and provide proxy voting service on behalf of shareholders. The proponent can also reach out to large asset managers to inform them of their arguments for voting in favor of the resolution, and can promote their proposal through the media to build awareness and support.

After the proposal is voted on at the AGM, the company is required to publish the results of the vote, and other matters discussed, in an 8-K SEC filing within 4 days of the AGM. These filings can be found on the company’s website.

The timeline can be complicated, so you may want to refer to the table below. 

Summarized Timeline: 

120 Days from release date of previous years company proxyDeadline to submit shareholder proposal
14 Days (after submission)Company exclusion based on eligibility or requirements
14 Days (after exclusion) Proponent can resubmit proposal fixing the issues 
80 Days (before proxy is printed) Company challenge to SEC with a no-action request 
ASAP (after No Action request)Proponent to challenge or appeal the no-action request 
Any Time after No Action requestSEC makes a decision on no-action request 
Any Time before AGMShareholder can withdraw proposal 
30 Days before proxy is printed Company issues Management Statement recommending how to vote on the proposal, to be printed in the proxy 
Any Time (usually 6 weeks) before AGMProponent published or files Proxy Memo / Exempt Solicitation 
~30 days before AGMProponent “builds vote” with Proxy Service companies 
4 days after AGMCompany files 8-K with proposal vote results 

See the SEC Bulletin with more information here. 

SEC’s rule changes set back transparency and shareholder voice

Today, the SEC approved in a 3-2 party-line vote new rules that severely restrict shareholders’ access to the corporate proxy by limiting the filing of resolutions. These new rules are a consequence of lobbying by powerful industry trade associations that have sought to limit shareholder engagement with corporations on critical environmental, social, and governance issues.

The shareholder resolution process, governed by the SEC’s Rule 14a-8, has been effective for decades and has allowed smaller shareholders who had held at least $2,000 of shares for over one year to file proposals asking companies to consider non-binding proposals that may raise questions of environmental and social impacts of corporate policies and practices, or governance best practices.

Today’s new rules will significantly limit investors’ ability to submit these proposals. The new rules raise the thresholds of ownership both in terms of the number of shares and length of time they must be held. Under the new rule, new purchasers of stock must hold $25,000 in shares for at least a year, or hold $2,000 in shares for at least three years.

As well, the new rules make it much more difficult to refile a proposal that has been voted on. The prior rule required 3% support on a first-year vote, 6% on a second vote, and 10% on a third vote to keep a proposal before a company’s shareholders. Now resubmission will require 5% on a first vote, 15% on a second vote and 25% on a third vote. Emerging issues will be much more difficult to bring to the proxy.

SGI’s executive director, Frank Sherman said, “The choice to approve the new rule aims to fix something that is not broken. A half-century of evidence shows that shareholders have an important voice that companies need to hear. Pioneers like Fr. Mike Crosby have helped companies pay attention to environmental, social, and governance concerns that they were missing. To the detriment of U.S. companies, this rule restricts that important voice.”

In a press release, ICCR executive director, Josh Zinner said: “The new rule guts the existing shareholder proposal process, which has long served as a cost-effective way for shareholders to communicate their priorities and concerns to management, with little economic analysis supporting the needs for these substantial changes. The new rules appear to be based on a wholly unsupported assumption that shareholder proposals are simply a burden to companies with no benefits for companies or non-proponent investors when there is 50 years of evidence to the contrary.”

Over many decades, the shareholder proposal process has served as an efficient way for corporate management and boards to gain a better understanding of shareholder priorities and concerns, particularly those of longer-term shareholders concerned about the long-term value of the companies that they own.  Engagement by shareholders has served as a crucial “early warning system” for companies to identify emerging risks and there are hundreds of examples of companies changing their policies and practices in light of productive engagement with shareowners.

For more information:

  • ICCR’s press release can be found here.
  • Joint letter from investor groups regarding the shifting interpretation of 14a-8 No-Action Challenges can be found here.
  • Case Studies showing the impact of the new rules on shareholder engagement can be found here.
  • For more information on the history of comments submitted to the SEC regarding these rule changes visit ICCR and Shareholder Rights Group
  • See also SEC’s Proposed New Rules Threaten Shareholder Democracy
  • See as well SGI’s formal comment submission to the SEC here.

Don’t miss these two webinars!

Each year, ICCR and Ceres offer webinars that highlight resolutions filed by members. These webinars provide excellent guidance to institutional investors and individual investors concerning shareholder proposals in the coming proxy season. We cannot recommend highly enough your participation in both webinars.

  • ICCR’s 2020 Proxy Resolutions & Voting Guide Overview. ICCR member resolutions reflect some of the most hotly-debated themes in the national discourse, from the failure of energy companies to meaningfully respond to the climate crisis threatening our planet, to the role of corporations in perpetuating civil and human rights abuses through technology products, and the unrelenting rise in the cost of U.S. healthcare. Register here. (Thu, Feb 27, 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Central) (UPDATE: 2020 Proxy Guide is here. Slides and recording are here. )
  • Business Case to Vote For 2020 Climate-Related Shareholder Proposals. An annual webinar presenting key climate-related shareholder proposals for the 2020 proxy season, and reasons why you should vote for them. Hosted by the Ceres Investor Network on Climate Risk and Sustainability. Register here. (Thu, Mar 12, 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Central) 

Even if you cannot attend live, registration means that you will be sent a link to the slides and recording of the webinar. In other words, even in the event that you have a schedule conflict, it can be valuable to register and watch the webinar at another time. Please, register for these webinars!

Notes from the Boeing AGM

By Bro. Robert Wotypka, OFM, Cap.

The Province of Saint Joseph of the Capuchin Order, whose Corporate Responsibility agent I am, filed a shareholder resolution in November 2018 asking that Boeing disclose all its political and lobbying spending, as well as its membership in industry and trade associations. We picked up the mantle in the sixth year of this ask, noting that there was a slight but steady upward tick in support of the resolution, reaching 24% in the 2018 annual general shareholders’ meeting. I registered for the event, held 29 April at the Field Museum in Chicago, Boeing’s corporate HQ.

I took the train from Kenosha. I met my company minder, from their capital arm, and had some snacks, connecting with Sisters Barbara Jennings and Marge Clark before taking my seat in an auditorium that likely has seen more class trips than Timothy Leary in his professorial days.

Here are the highlights (as I see it) from my two-minute statement, with thanks to John Keenan of AFSCME for his expert research and prep:

Mark Hanna, a turn-of-the-20th century Senator from Ohio, said,There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” We move this resolution not because we are naïve but because we are not. And because we know that companies with a high reputational rank perform better financially than lower-ranked companies. Our company is in a legal and reputational crisis which underscores the need to embrace accountability and to be fully transparent with shareholders, including through disclosure of its lobbying activity. Fellow shareholders, this is not the time to support this resolution; members of the board, this is not the time to implement this resolution. This is past the time to vote in support of and to implement this resolution. We urge shareholders to vote FOR this proposal. Thank you.

I was too nervous to look at the clock, but I prepped and I am pretty sure I made it within the two-minute mark. The resolution received 32.6% of the vote. My sisters in the movement offered congratulations and helped me frame the result – that this means the resolution could be re-introduced next year. Our own Frank Sherman (ED of Seventh Generation), in a post-AGM briefing, explained what I knew only in theory but was now feeling in my bones: that mutual fund managers, who hold immense numbers of shares and thereby voting rights, rarely, almost never, vote against the recommendations of management. And Boeing management urged a NO not against our resolution, against the resolution separating the CEO from the Chairman of the Board of Directors, and against an ask to separate out the impact of share buy-backs from the movement of the stock price, which feeds into and distorts compensation plans. None tracked much more or less than the St. Joseph resolution. But my fellow activists said we ought to celebrate that 8% jump, and so I do, with you. The CEO struck me as well-scripted and immovable – qualities contrary to Gospel movements. There was a serious and challenging question about the processes and values that informed the rollout of the 737 MAX series. And again – a highly scripted and immovable response. There is more to come, to be sure.

One more free muffin, then back to the street where the recently liberated ice cap was still pouring down. I met some protesters on the sidewalk and we talked and commiserated, then a kind soul from the north side dropped me at Union Station, and back to Milwaukee. What do I carry with me? As follows: an AGM is much like a summit, or a pre-Pope Francis synod: the heavy lifting and the grunt work comes before the switching on of the mics and the lights and the summoning of the slides. And thanks to the work of ICCR, Seventh Generation, our co-filers and collaborators, there was much lifting and there was much grunting and the prep work, including filing an exempt solicitation, bore fruit. I stood on the shoulders of gentle giants.

Member Webinar: Shareholder Resolution Process

Today, we hosted our latest webinar for member education on the “Shareholder Resolution Process.” ICCR’s Guide to Filing Shareholder Resolutions is a great tool. We are grateful that Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management and Pat Miguel Tomaino of Zevin Asset Management were able to join us. Their input was a great contribution. Without further ado, here is the video:

 

SGI members score progress with utilities on climate change

This year, SGI members filed resolutions with two midwestern utilities: CMS Energy and WEC Energy Group. Each resolution aimed for the public disclosure of an assessment of the long-term business impacts of limiting global warming to under 2-degrees Celsius, as adopted by the Paris Climate Agreement.

We have great news: both resolutions have been withdrawn as the companies agreed to the main components of the resolutions. Despite the Trump administration’s decision to end the Clean Power Plan, both midwestern utilities rise to meet the challenges of climate change. In fact, CMS announced last week that they reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent and no longer using coal to generate electricity by 2040.

Sr. Ruth Geraets, PBVM of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aberdeen, SD who led the filing of the resolution at CMS Energy said, “My congregation is concerned about climate change and the critical need to reduce greenhouse emissions because our mission calls us to care for creation. As longterm shareholders in CMS, we believe having a strategy in place to meet climate challenges head-on will improve CMS’ competitive position over the long term. We were pleased to see CMS step up to this challenge with its recently announced clean energy breakthrough goals.”

With respect to the dialogue with WEC Energy Group, on behalf of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province, Tim Dewane said, “Pope Francis has said, ‘Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility.’ We thank WEC Energy Group for its efforts in this regard so far. We believe they are not only good for the planet, but they are also in the bottom-line best interests of the company, its customers and shareholders.”

“These two utility companies are climate leaders in the Midwest,” said Frank Sherman, Executive Director of SGI. “They recognize that market forces and their customer base are pushing them to exceed federal climate regulations and state renewable portfolio standards. Although they are big companies, utilities have a very local focus and are highly dependent on the social license granted by the communities where they operate.”

Our partners at ICCR shared a press release about this win which can be found here.

FSPA takes CSR to court

When we saw a recent article (Wisconsin groups to get $12M settlement for natural gas price fixing) from the La Crosse Tribune quoting Sr. Sue Ernster, FSPA, we wanted to bring it to the attention of our SGI members.  Sr. Sue adds:

FSPA participated in the lawsuit of the manipulation of natural gas pricing by multiple utilities as another way of how we live out our social justice activities and our values.  We see this as an effort to help those whose voices are not represented in this and other situations.  We are utilizing the resources we have at our disposal to hold those accountable who were responsible for this price manipulation.

Our hope is that participating in litigation settlements such as these, as well as filing shareholder resolutions with companies, demonstrates that people are paying attention, asking questions and holding them accountable for their actions.

Book recommendation: The Shareholder Action Guide

In a new series of posts, SGI will offer reviews and suggestions of books related to our work in shareholder advocacy.

For those who want an inspirational primer about shareholder advocacy, Andrew Behar’s The Shareholder Action Guide: Unleash Your Hidden Powers to Hold Corporations Accountable fits the bill. Replete with anecdotes and advice, coupled with references to on-line resources, this book explains the tools and strategies available to empower shareholders. Further, this handbook may well inspire new activist shareholders to demand corporate accountability.

Andrew Behar

The author leads As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that focuses on environmental and social corporate responsibility. As You Sow focuses on climate change, sustainability, human rights, and environmental health, and it engages, among others, companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Southern, FirstEnergy, Duke, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, HP, Dell, Apple, Proctor & Gamble, and Coca-Cola.

In 15 brief chapters, Behar takes readers through the basics. The first seven chapters include: shareholder responsibilities, how shareholders began to use their power with General Motors in South Africa, defining some limits on shareholder actions, explaining proxy votes, influencing fund managers, and corporate engagements and filing shareholder resolutions. Chapter 8 of The Shareholder Action Guide also tells the story of many campaigns in shareholder advocacy from across the past forty years. It profiles leaders in shareholder advocacy, including a testament to the work of SGI’s founder, the late Fr. Mike Crosby, for his efforts in tobacco. Those involved with SGI will recognize the names of numerous allies referenced in the book, including Tim Smith and Sr. Nora Nash, O.S.F. Subsequent chapters contemporary strategies in shareholder advocacy .

Behar explores how corporations are the most powerful entities on the planet. Sadly, many have had a long record of failing to care for creation, exploiting vulnerable people, and hiding boardroom decision-making. Since, by law, corporations are beholden to their shareholders, some philanthropic trusts, pension funds, and other institutional investors have used shareholder advocacy to press for changes in corporate policy. Behar also underscores the opportunity to engage individual investors, who have largely been silent, mistakenly thinking themselves powerless. The Shareholder Action Guide is designed to inform, inspire, and instruct investors in how to exercise their power to effect meaningful change on critical issues including environmental justice, food sustainability, executive compensation, and worker’s rights. Owners of as little as $2,000 worth of stock in a publicly traded corporation have the power to be heard. This book is a call to action designed to build a movement of active investors. Behar illustrates how investors can stop abdicating their power and act to make a better world.