Business World

Saturday 20 January 2018

Facebook swims against the tide of 'Shareholder Spring'

A monitor shows a welcoming message for Facebook's listing on the NASDAQ Marketsite prior to the opening bell in New York May 18, 2012. Photo: Reuters
A monitor shows a welcoming message for Facebook's listing on the NASDAQ Marketsite prior to the opening bell in New York May 18, 2012. Photo: Reuters

The corporate world is emerging from several weeks of boardroom turbulence dubbed the "Shareholder Spring". In annual meeting after annual meeting around the world, boards have been taken to task by investors and other stakeholders on a wide range of issues: remuneration, board composition, competence, diversity, voting control, dual stock and more.

In Ireland, nearly a third of investors in Kerry Group -- arguably the country's most successful company in recent years -- voted against retaining chairman Denis Buckley.

At Glanbia, six directors faced strong opposition from institutional investors, while David Begg was only retained on the board at Aer Lingus because of support from the Government, which holds 25pc of the airline.

In the meantime, we have also witnessed the soap opera of Yahoo's boardroom, the rebuke to newly public Groupon's board for its lack of oversight of accounting practices, and the public condemnation of News International's chairman Rupert Murdoch -- and, by extension, its board -- questioning his competence to lead the organisation. No sector has been immune, no director has been untouchable.

Now Facebook has entered the public markets, its defiant position regarding its old-style governance is in stark contrast with the temper of the Shareholder Spring. Facebook swims against the tide of a global movement toward transparency, engagement and checks and balances.

It feels as if we've all stepped into a time machine and none of the past couple of years of governance lessons -- including the failures of boards in the banking-sector crisis -- ever happened.

Several troubling issues call into question how this company can consider itself groundbreaking, innovative or new: the concentration of power in the hands of one man, the stranglehold on voting rights, the lack of diversity in the boardroom (which, in a way, is inconsequential, as the Facebook board does not have much bite anyway), and above all else the flagrant disregard of the lessons of the past several years about engaged, active and independent boards contributing to strong companies.

Were Facebook striving to be an innovative company built to last, it would encourage healthy dialogue and diversity in the boardroom, and equal shareholder voting rights. It would not need to lock in power, but rather earn authority through excellent performance and results.

The leadership would trust that a democratic boardroom would foster greater strength and stability than dictatorship, which brings a false sense of security. That's a lesson we can take from the Arab Spring, where dictators thought that they held real control.

Today there is euphoria, anticipation and excitement among investors.

A lot of people will make money in the short term, but short-term investing is not what builds strong businesses and strong economies. The world needs durable companies that are innovative in the products and services they sell, but also distinguish themselves through responsive and responsible conduct in their corporate governance structures and business practices.

Over the years, Facebook will need to grapple with many issues that affect the development of the company and the lives of its users, from growth to innovating ahead of the curve, and from privacy to social responsibility.

My hope is that Mark Zuckerberg begins to see the value of ceding some of the control he holds by rule and is able to trust that he will be able to earn that control through deed.

If that doesn't happen, all eyes will be on the investors to see if at least they have learned the lessons of bad governance and the value of good.

Lucy Marcus is a columnist with Reuters. Maeve Dineen is on leave.

Irish Independent

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