Archive for September, 2016|Monthly archive page

BHS – an ongoing corporate governance classic

On Sunday 29 August 2016, BHS (British Home Stores) closed the last of its 164 remaining stores, making around 11,000 employees redundant and jeopardizing the future of over 20,000 pensioners. The media took delight, at the same time, in showing the previous owner of BHS, Sir Philip Green, sailing around the Mediterranean on Lionheart, his new $100 million luxury yacht.

 The business of BHS

BHS was a department store business, with over 150 shops around the UK and others abroad. These stores sold a wide range of merchandise relatively cheaply–women, men, and children’s clothing; furniture and household goods; garden equipment; fashion accessories; toys, cameras, and wide range of other goods. Many also had a restaurant. In its heyday, BHS had a store on the high street of the most important towns in Britain.

But in recent years, high street shopping has been challenged by shopping malls, where specialist stores offered wider ranges of specific goods and, of increasing importance, free parking. Internet shopping then developed, bringing further challenges to department stores.The retail industry underwent a period of rapid challenges and growing competitiveness. BHS reflected a by-gone shopping era.

 Arcadia Group Ltd.

Founded in 1928, BHS traded successfully and grew around Britain for generations before being acquired by the Arcadia Group Ltd, an investment company running a network of subsidiary companies mainly in clothes retailing under the brand names of Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Burtons Menswear, Wallis, Evans, Miss Selfridge, and Outfit. Arcadia had over 3,000 retail outlets and nearly 7 million square feet of space. The Arcadia accounts list seventy-seven wholly owned subsidiaries, some of them with their own chain of subsidiaries.

In 2014/15, the Arcadia Group turnover was £2,069 million, giving it an operating profit of £229 million. However, exceptional costs including pre-opening costs of overseas stores and pension fund adjustments, and a loss on the disposal of BHS (£311 million) led to an overall loss of £94 million. The 2014/15 accounts note that the UK Pensions Regulator was seeking information from the company in connection with the BHS pension schemes.

Arcadia Group Ltd is wholly owned by Taveta Investments (No.2) Ltd., the first link in a network of trusts and companies, with many registered in Jersey, a Channel Islands tax haven. The Arcadia Group is dominated by Sir Philip Green and its major shareholder, allegedly, is Green’s wife, Lady Tina Green, who is a British-born South African resident in Monaco, a Mediterranean tax haven. Neither Green nor his wife is now on the Arcadia board of directors. Green resigned from the board on 15 December 2015. Lord Grabiner QC also resigned from the Arcadia board on that day.

The Arcadia accounts and annual return for 2014/15, filed with the UK Companies’ Registry, show the Arcadia directors as:

Paul Budge,  Finance Director

Richard Burchill, Accountant (appointed 15 December 2015)

Ian Grabiner, Company Director

Gillian Hague, Group Financial Controller (appointed 15 September 2015)

Christopher Harris,  Company Director

Richard de Dombal (appointed 15 December 2015)

Directors’ remuneration for 2014/15 was £5,271,000, with the highest paid director receiving £1,955,000 (supposedly Ian Grabiner, who is said to be Green’s right-hand man).

Carmen Ltd, a property company owned by the Green family, received over £10 million in rent on BHS stores in 2014/15; and a further £20 million was paid to the family by BHS to repay loans.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP are the Arcadia Group auditors. The 2014/15 accounts show audit fees for the Group and subsidiaries of £355,000 plus fees for non-audit services of £1,798,000 (including £1,151 million for ‘pension advisory services’).

Sir Philip Green

Green is a flamboyant and confrontational billionaire. Many reporters have experienced his explosive temper. He is not one to give interviews. So he was unlikely to provide information to your case writer, who has relied on company accounts, published reports, and newspaper commentary.

Over the years, Green built up a network of retail stores within the Arcadia Group, principally in clothing, both in Britain and abroad, through acquisition, merger, and re-structuring. He received his knighthood for contributions to retailing.

Green and his family own and dominate Arcadia Group, including BHS until its sale. Therefore, Green felt that Bhs was his own company: so he and his family were entitled to pay themselves substantial dividends and fees. He is reported to have said; ‘It’s my money, I can do what I like with it.’

The sale and collapse of BHS

However, BHS had made losses for the past seven years, which had to be funded by the Arcadia Group. In other words, Green family interests had funded BHS losses. But BHS was a private company. Corporate governance codes that cover public companies did not apply to BHS.

By 2015, BHS was struggling. In March 2015, the company was sold for a nominal £1 to Retail Acquisitions Ltd., a company owned by Dominic Chapell, a three times bankrupt former racing driver. The sale to Retail Acquisitions was negotiated by bankers Goldman Sachs.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Arcadia insisted on three protective covenants before selling BHS:

  1. All monies available to BHS at the time of sale shall be used for the day-to-day running of BHS.
  2. All proceeds realised from the sale of BHS properties shall be used to operate BHS as a going concern and to pay its debts.
  3. No steps are to be taken by the buyer that would adversely affect the ability of BHS to continue as a going concern.

Finance Director Budge explained that this was to ensure that all monies available to BHS should be used for that company’s business and not drawn down by the new owners.

The financial impacts of the BHS sale are clear in the Arcadia accounts for 2014/15. £216 million due to Arcadia Group Ltd were waived. Provisions relating to BHS disposal and cash transferred by Arcadia to BHS cost £88 million. The cash costs of the BHS disposal came to £2.3 million.

Administrators Duff and Phelps were appointed to administer BHS in April 2016. Unable to find a buyer, the closure of its stores followed in August, 2016.

The pension fund deficit

The deficit in the BHS pension fund was initially reported as being around £570 million. The stock market crisis in 2008 had reduced the fund’s value and subsequent losses at BHS had prevented funding the short-fall. In evidence to Members of Parliament, Chappell alleged that Green made a condition of any deal not to contact the Pensions Regulator.

The UK’s Pension Protection Fund can contribute to failed pension funds, but BHS pensioners would probably face reduced benefits. The UK’s Pensions Regulator has powers to call on Arcadia to contribute to the BHS pension fund deficit either through a financial support direction or a contribution notice. Green has claimed that he was ‘being tortured by the Regulator.’

 Green is reported to have made an informal offer of a £300 million contribution to the pension fund but only on condition that investigations against him be stopped and any legal action against him or his wife would be dropped.

Parliamentary probe into BHS sale

Members of Parliament from the Works and Pensions, and Business Innovation and Skills select committees called on evidence to probe the BHS collapse. The Chairman of the Works and Pensions Select committee, Frank Fields, suggested that Green, himself, should fund the deficit or risk losing his knighthood. Green responded aggressively claiming that he had offered to support the pension fund but his offer had been rejected. He also suggested that the Chairman, Field, was biased against him.

In his defence, Green said: ‘Any fair review of the BHS balance sheet would show the support we had provided to the BHS business throughout; It is clear that we invested substantially in the business. We lent substantial sums to the business and we gave Retail Acquisitions every chance, with a solid platform to take the business forward’.

The Chairman of the BHS pension fund trustees, Chris Martin, told the MPs that he had raised concerns about the deficit in the BHS pension fund after meeting Chappell. He felt that Retail Acquisitions had done little due diligence during their acquisition.

Business Select Committee member, Richard Fuller, called for an investigation by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) of the conduct of directors and professional advisers involved. The FRC launched a probe into the involvement of BHS auditor one of the Big Four audit firms, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

MPs called for Lady Tina Green to shed light on the complex web of companies registered in her name in tax havens, and their profits. They also wanted to know more about the relationship between Green and Goldman Sachs.

More critical comments

The Institute of Directors (IOD) commented that the action of Green ‘has the potential to be deeply damaging to British business. We spend a lot of time agonizing over the loss of trust in the business community and I think we can see why…When someone ends up behaving like this people think that is how business is: and it is not’.

The IOD also called on the UK’s Financial Reporting Council to investigate whether the board of Arcadia Group had failed in its duty to promote the success of a company it owned.

The Daily Mail said that Green had ‘obfuscated and dodged questions about the liabilities when he sold BHS to a former bankrupt, using a front page banner headline: ‘STRIP SIR SHIFTY OF HIS TITLE.’

Lord Myners, a corporate governance stalwart, asked the Attorney General whether the Serious Fraud Office was considering a formal criminal investigation into the collapse of BHS.

Although the SFO, the FRC, the Pensions Regulator and the administrator/liquidator have yet to report, the BHS case seems set to become a corporate governance classic. One is reminded of the Robert Maxwell case (page 25-26, Corporate Governance 3e, Tricker). Maxwell, a dominant entrepreneur, used funds from two public companies and their staff pension funds to prop up his private interests. Maxwell’s business empire finally collapsed leaving a £753 million deficit. He died of a heart attack having fallen from his yacht in the Mediterranean. But Maxwell had taken monies from two listed public companies, and their pension funds. BHS was a private company predominantly owned by the Green family.

 

Discussion questions

  1. Was anything wrong with the governance of BHS? This was a private company, wholly owned by another private company, itself in a network of overseas trusts and holding companies. No public company was involved.
  2. Should there be a corporate governance code for significant private companies, say those with sales revenues or employees over a certain figure? Should such significant private companies be required to have independent, non-executive (outside) directors or explain why they do not? Should they have audit committees, remunerations committees, and nomination committees with independent directors? Should the chairmanship of the board be separate form the CEO?
  3. Should independent auditors provide non-audit services and advice to their audit clients? (PWC were paid £355,000 in audit fees plus fees for non-audit services of £1,798,000).
  4. The UK Companies’ Act 2006 applies to all limited liability companies in the UK–public and private. It, therefore, applied to the Arcadia Group Ltd and to BHS Ltd. The Companies Act specifically spells out a statutory duty to recognise the effect of board decisions on a wider public, including ‘the interests of the company’s employees’, and ‘the need to foster the company’s business relations with suppliers, customers and others’. Did the decisions that led to the liquidation of BHS meet these requirements? If not, how might the Act be enforced?

A new idea in corporate governance – Shareholder Senates

Around twenty years ago I wrote that while the twentieth century had been the era of management, with its new management schools, management consultants, and management gurus, the twenty-first century would be the era of corporate governance.   Corporate governance has certainly now moved centre stage. Google has 52 million references to the phrase.

Interest in corporate governance has flourished. The late Sir Adrian Cadbury wrote the first corporate governance code – the UK’s Financial Aspects of Corporate Governance (1992).  He always emphasized that his report was not a comprehensive approach to corporate governance, but focused on the financial aspects. Nevertheless, he made proposals that are still pertinent ̶ the creation of board level audit committees, remuneration committees, and nomination committees, with independent outside directors; the separation of the board chairman from the CEO; and public reporting that the company had complied with the code or explaining why it had not.

Since then, corporate governance codes, often as stock exchange requirements, cover almost all listed companies around the world. But despite countless amendments, revisions, and rewrites most corporate governance development has been piecemeal. There has been relatively little original thinking. Most codes still adopt Cadbury’s voluntary ‘comply or explain’ approach. The principle exception is in the United States, where regulation and legislation are used to oversee the governance of corporations.

The development of corporate governance practice has almost always been in response to corporate failure or economic malaise. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was set up in 1932–3, after the stock market crash of 1929 and the great depression that followed. The Cadbury report responded to concerns about corruption found in UK Government inspectors’ reports on failed companies including the collapse of Robert Maxwell’s’ corporate empire.

The US Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX 2002), was a response to the failure of Enron, Waste Management, and other companies, followed by the folding of the ‘Big Five’ accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, reducing the big five to the even bigger four. Unfortunately, SOX did not prevent the global financial crisis, starting around 2008, in which US companies such as Lehman Brothers failed and American International Group, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and others were bailed-out by the US government. The result was further federal legislation. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, called by some SOX 2, attempted to improve American financial regulation and the governance of the US financial services industry.

As yet, no over-arching theory of corporate governance has emerged. New thinking and new ideas are badly needed in the governance of organizations. A fundamental governance question for the modern public company, for example, is: What role should the shareholders play in corporate governance?

In the original mid-nineteenth model of the joint-stock limited liability company, the shareholders were mostly individuals–aristocrats and members of the newly forming affluent middle class. These shareholders appointed the directors who reported to them on their stewardship of the company. The directors may have known their shareholders personally. Shareholder meetings and votes were the way boards of directors were held to account. Indeed, in the original model accounts were audited by an audit committee, elected from among the shareholders themselves.

But today, individuals running their own portfolios form only a small part of the shareholder base. These ‘retail shareholders’ typically have relatively small holdings and little influence. They might also include directors, executives, and other employees of the company.

Significant shareholders are more likely to be:

  • active institutional investors, such as mutual funds, pension funds, and financial institutions, closely interested in the company’s affairs who may be actively involved in corporate governance matters; and
  • passive institutional investors, such as index-tracking funds required by their constitutions to invest in a given range of securities, using computer algorithms to make investment decisions, with little interest in corporate governance issues. The shareholder base could also include:
        • hedge funds gambling against the market and selling short, with real short-term interests in the business, but not in longer-term corporate governance;
        • private equity investors seeking short term strategic opportunities;
        • dominant investors, perhaps the company’s founders or their family trusts, who are closely interested in, and possibly actively involved in company affairs. Though they might hold only a minority of the voting equity, in some jurisdictions they can maintain ownership power through dual-class shares;
        • state-owned corporations, perhaps with a minority of their shares traded publically, and possibly influenced by state economic and political interests; and
        • sovereign funds, using state capital to invest, possibly with political or economic implications as well as financial interests.Concerns over corporate behaviour, such as allegedly excessive director remuneration, unclear or over-ambitious corporate strategies, or the lack of board diversity have led some politicians and other commentators to call for shareholders to exercise their duty to oversee board behaviour more fully. This has led to the emergence of proxy advisers; firms that study issues facing companies and advise institutional investors on voting decisions.

But votes in shareholder meetings are advisory; exhortatory at best. Shareholders’ votes do not bind the board. Directors do not have to follow them. Energetic efforts by some institutional investors, including grouping together, have not changed the underlying power structure.

Bob Monks, in his book Corpocracy (New York: Wiley, 2007), showed how power had moved over the years from owners to directors. Concerned by what he saw as an abuse of power, he co-founded Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) in 1985 to wage proxy warfare on companies. These proxy battles continue to this day. However, the fundamental question remains: In the modern public company what should the role of shareholders be?

Is it, on the one hand, to preserve the nineteenth-century legal concept of the corporation–that the shareholders own the company and are expected to play a basic role in its governance by electing the directors and holding them to account. Or is it, on the other hand, for the shareholders to accept a corporate stakeholder role providing finance, just as suppliers provide goods and services, customers produce sales revenues, and the employees provide the work force?

I have just completed a study on shareholder communication for the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries, which will be published shortly and duly noted in this blog. In a survey Hong Kong’s listed companies gave overwhelming support for the idea that shareholders should exercise a stewardship role in the governance of listed companies. In this they are in line with the opinions of many authorities around the world–regulators, legislators, and corporate governance commentators.

Had the alternative view been taken, that shareholders are just one of the various stakeholders in a corporation, appropriate governance models could be developed. The German supervisory level two-tier board could provide a start; members are nominated to represent both labour and capital (the employees and the investors). Representatives of other stakeholders could be added.

Such a development would reflect a change in the UK Companies’ law in 2006. Prior to that company law in the UK required directors to act in the best interests of the company, which effectively meant in the interest of the shareholders, in other words, by attempting to maximize shareholder value in the long term. But the Companies Act 2006 specifically spelled out a statutory duty to recognize the effect of board decisions on a wider public. For the first time in UK company law, corporate social responsibility (CSR) responsibilities were included among the formal duties of company directors:

‘A director of a company must act in the way he considers, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole, and in doing so have regard to:

(a) the likely consequences of any decision in the long term

(b) the interests of the company’s employees

(c) the need to foster the company’s business relations with suppliers, customers, and others

(d) the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment

(e) the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct, and

(f) the need to act fairly as between members of the company.’

Thus UK company law now requires companies to consider employees, suppliers, customers, and other business partners, as well as the community and the environment, in their decisions.

However, if shareholders are to continue to be a responsible part of the corporate governance mechanism, how might that be achieved? If shareholders are really to affect corporate governance in the companies in which they invest, they need more power. New corporate governance models will have to be devised. One idea might be a Shareholder Senate.

Shareholder Senates

A Shareholder Senate would be a new governance body set mid-way between the company and the body of shareholders. Members of the Senate would be nominated by long-term institutional investors and elected by all the shareholders.

The Senate would meet formally with the board’s remuneration committee, its nomination committee, and its audit committee with the auditors. Periodically, it would have discussions with the Chairman and the entire board. It would also meet independently to formulate reports and make recommendations to shareholders.

The overall responsibility for the company and its management would remain with the board of directors. The Senate would have the authority to question, to advise, and to influence the company on its strategies, operational performance, and financial matters. For example, a Senate could question and challenge levels and methods of executive remuneration, the adequacy of risk assessment systems, the balance of skills, experience, and adequacy of the directors, and confirm that succession plans existed for all senior executives.

The Senate would not have the power to block the board’s decisions, nor could it hire and fire directors (as the German supervisory board can). But it would have the responsibility to liaise with the shareholders, and the power to recommend how they vote on specific motions. It could also introduce motions for shareholder meetings. Over time, Shareholder Senates would supplement and probably replace the work of proxy advisers.

Shareholder Senates would become a fundamental component of companies’ corporate governance structures and processes. Accordingly, members of the Senate would have fees and expenses reimbursed by the company, just as non-executive, outside directors have. The company would be responsible for publishing Senate reports and other communications with investors, just as it publishes other corporate reports.

Concern might be expressed that members of Shareholder Senates would receive unfair insider information. But Senate members could be placed in a similar position to directors who may not trade shares prior to the announcement of results. In fact, Senate members would be in a less exposed position than a nominee director elected by a major shareholder, because they would not attend board deliberations.

In fact, it would not be difficult to introduce a requirement for shareholder senates into companies’ legislation or to include them in corporate governance codes, operating on the ‘comply or explain’ principle.

The proposal for Shareholder Senates will not be welcomed by most directors and their boards, because they would inevitably mean a shift of power away from the boardroom back to the owners. However, there was plenty of antagonism in British board rooms to the original Cadbury Report proposals: many thought independent outside directors were an unnecessary imposition and an infringement of executive directors’ right to run their own companies.

There is little doubt that Shareholder Senates will not be achieved without legislation and regulation. Such developments could be prompted by the ongoing dissatisfaction with the governance of the modern corporation. The newly appointed British prime minster, Theresa May, following the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, mentioned problems with the governance of British companies in her inaugural statement.

Corporate governance evolves. Dissatisfaction exists over the present corporate governance model. Some boards readily accept a responsibility to engage with their shareholders. Others do not. Some companies are run for the benefit of their owners. Others are not. Criticisms multiply of board-level excess, particularly over board-level remuneration. Shareholder Senates would provide an opportunity to re-establish owners’ rights. They would give investors a more effective say in the governance of their companies. Power would no longer be abdicated by the owners to the directors.

 

Bob Tricker
September 2016