ICGN Panel: Zooming in on stewardship efforts and shareholder engagement
A panel of experts at the ICGN conference in Stockholm discussed the do's and don'ts with regards to shareholder engagement
With investors’ stewardship teams positioning themselves for what will be a ground-breaking shareholder meeting season, what can companies expect? And what should and shouldn’t asset owners do?
Looking back at shareholder meetings already held in 2023 across the EMEA region, a panel of experts at today's ICGN conference in Stockholm zoomed in on shareholder engagement efforts.
Have investors communicated their potential new set of guidelines enough and if so, how did they do it?
Have companies engaged enough with the right parties to ensure that they will not be surprised by potential dissent at their next shareholder meeting?
Christine Chow, Member of the Board, ICGN in the UK, said a key question for shareholders is “to measure or not to measure?”
“What does make engagement productive in the short and long term?"
She pointed that, first of all, “what gets measured, gets managed”, singling out a quote by Peter Drucker.
“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." All panellists nodded.
So the big question is, to measure or not to measure?
“Even the way questions are phrased, or the way they are asked, impacts the way corporates behave,” Chow said.
Susanne Stormer, ESG partner and sustainability services leader at Big Four giant PwC in Denmark, said that a key question asset owners ask corporates - or should ask - is whether “your business model is sustainable?”
“This question is increasingly asked from an impact investment point of view,” Stormer shared with the audience.
She referred to a recent PwC survey: “Fast forward to today, 40% of global CEOs think their company think their companies are no longer economically viable in ten years’ time, if they continue in its current form.”
Stormer urged the crowd to “just think about that. 40 per cent. Of all businesses.”
For Chow, the conversations between investors, analysts and corporates about how companies manage their business for the future is key. “Slowing growth is just a short-term issue.”
If not short-term growth, what topics have driven, or should be driving, engagement?
Klaus Kunz, head of ESG external engagement and performance reporting at Bayer in Germany, said any such question should “start with your problems, your issues, your challenges. Not with your success stories. Ask the critical questions.”
“We need to change the attitude in the conversation,” he explained.
In addition, Sawan Kumar, head of stewardship at UK-based Evenlode Investment, said his firm decided to actively engage with all 84 companies in its portfolio.
“We give them feedback, [press them on] their commitment to net zero and so on,” he elaborated.
For Chow, capex is particularly important. She said investors should be looking into this metric because “it is all about understanding the growth capex, the rationale behind the company, a good way for us to understand the underlying thoughts.”
She added that “strengthening short-term accountability is another good way to bring change”, on diversity, equality and exclusion, for example, “a real priority for us.”
Stormer thinks it is “interesting that if we had an opportunity to survey this audience, we could run a sanity check”, as she said his experience is that many investors are less concerned over climate change than their companies.
“You, as investors, are key to bring that change. what is the half-life of your business?”
Sure, said Klaus but we have to be realistic, challenging Stormer. “If everyone in my company says we love ESG, it is simply not true.”
So if engagement is not working, what should investors do?
Chow said - via private conversations - there should be some sort of escalation process.
“If a company is not responding, then of course it becomes an issue. Ultimately, you can call for a shareholder meeting, but that is the last resort,” she noted.
“Every step of escalation needs to be carefully considered so the constructive dialogue with the company can be maintained,” Chow concluded.