Opinion

Lucy P. Marcus

Should big investors be fleeing Murdoch?

Lucy P. Marcus
Oct 17, 2012 17:52 UTC

Following the proceedings of the News Corp annual general meeting, one can’t help but think of the proverbial definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

I’m not talking about Rupert Murdoch. He’s been doing the same thing for years and always getting the result he wanted. He comes away from yet another AGM with the dual roles of CEO and chairman firmly in hand. Also, the dual voting stock structure remains so that, though Rupert Murdoch and his family own approximately 12 percent of the shares, they hold 40 percent of the voting power. In essence, Rupert Murdoch and his family control the decisions and destiny of the company relatively unchallenged. Both Rupert Murdoch and News Corp board member Viet Dinh made abundantly clear during the board meeting that this was not going to change. Though the company has gone through the motions of appointing new independent directors, the choices suggest a not-so-subtle sense of humor: One of the new independent directors is the former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, who was embroiled in a wiretapping scandal of his own.

No, what makes me think of this definition of insanity is the behavior of investors. For the past couple of years, a growing number of institutional investors have expressed concerns over Rupert Murdoch’s holding the role of CEO and chairman and the dual voting stock. Several of the largest and most well-regarded investors in the world have challenged the structure of the company and its corporate governance – and have been completely disregarded. This year California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), joined by the Florida State Board of Administration, UK pension fund Hermes, and several other large institutions, put forward resolutions, and spoke up at the AGM about dual shares and in support of appointing an independent chairman. These suggestions were unceremoniously swatted away.

In most cases institutional investors at this level of clout and voting power would be able to have some sway. Often they are the only ones who have real power to effect change in organizations. In this case, with the dual share structure, their concerns are easily ignored with little or no negative repercussions, except for some bad press and tsk-tsking.

There is no doubt that News Corp has been profitable – the shares have risen 40 percent this year, bringing an impressive return on the institutions’ investment. But it raises a larger question about principle: If the institutions cannot effect change at News Corp, and they feel strongly about the issues they raise about corporate governance – and by extension, about ethical concerns about the organization’s behavior – what is to be done? Is it time for them to decide that principle and long-term concerns over the stability of the company trump short-term profit?

Facebook versus the Shareholder Spring

Lucy P. Marcus
May 17, 2012 18:43 UTC

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 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 chair – and, by extension, its board – questioning his competence to lead the organization. No sector has been immune; no director has been untouchable.

Now Facebook is about to enter 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.

Why Facebook – and every company – needs a diverse board

Lucy P. Marcus
Feb 8, 2012 23:49 UTC

On Tuesday, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), the second-largest pension fund in the United States, wrote to Facebook to address the fact that the company has an unusually small, insular board with no women. With this bold and public step, CalSTRS brought to the fore an issue of genuine concern: diversity in the boardroom.

Most of the press will pick up the part about the absence of women board members, and that is vital — there is no doubt that women are severely underrepresented in the boardroom. The lack of women on boards, however, is a reflection of a wider problem with diversity: It is one of color, age, international perspective and more. The Facebook boardroom has virtually no variety, and that is a serious issue. Boards that don’t represent the stakeholders of the business and the environment in which companies operate are not able to do their jobs as capably.

A lack of diversity is not simply a problem of “optics.” In the modern world, it does look odd not to have it, but does diversity make a difference in real economic terms? Does it actually affect the bottom line? To my mind the answer is a resounding yes. We do not need diversity for diversity’s sake, but because diversity on the board contributes to the profitability of the business. Diversity of thought, experience, knowledge, understanding, perspective and age means that a board is more capable of seeing and understanding risks and coming up with robust solutions to address them. Businesses led by diverse boards that reflect the whole breadth of their stakeholders and their business environment will be more successful businesses. They are more in touch with their customers’ demands, their investors’ expectations, their staffs’ concerns, and they have a forum in the boardroom where these different perspectives come together and successful business strategies can be devised.

You’ve got to know when to go

Lucy P. Marcus
Jan 31, 2012 16:26 UTC

Hewlett-Packard has announced that Lawrence Babbio will be stepping off its board, and this comes hot on the heels of the news that Sari Baldauf would also not be standing for re-election. GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals has announced that James Murdoch will not continue to serve on its board. He has served on GSK’s board since 2009, on its Ethics Committee. Murdoch has been embroiled in controversy this year, which led to loud rumblings as to whether it was prudent for him to remain on the board.

This news brings to mind an issue that comes up time and again when independent board directors gather: inactive, unproductive, distracting or simply “dead wood” board members. It is often discussed in hushed tones, but it is time to address it openly and frankly, and to look upon it as the responsibility of each of us as individual board members, rather than simply an issue for the board or the board chair to tackle.

There are a number of reasons that you should consider stepping off a board:

You’ve served too long.

There is a finite amount of time that anyone can serve on a board in a truly independent manner, yet a surprising number of “independent” directors have served for 30-plus years. The UK Corporate Governance Code‘s guideline on this issue sets out nine years as best practice. It seems hard to fathom that independence would stretch to 36 years, the tenure of Coca-Cola board director James D. Robinson, or 41 years, as is the case with Douglas G. Houser, a director on Nike’s board. Questioning their length of service is not a reflection on their abilities as board members, but rather stating the obvious: It is impossible to remain independent and to serve for that long.

What happens when the board goes global?

Lucy P. Marcus
Dec 5, 2011 18:55 UTC

By Lucy P. Marcus

The views expressed are her own.


In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen board-related stories from Japan with Olympus, India with Tata, Italy with Finmeccanica, South Korea with the Korea Exchange Bank (KEB), and more. Each story brings up a different issue around corporate governance, but taken together they raise a fresh question: Is a new global approach to board ethics emerging?

Corporate governance rules and requirements are distinct in different countries, and are often bound up in local attitudes and cultures. Yet there now seems to be emerging an overarching and universal ethic and attitude towards boards, board service, and the responsibilities boards and their members individually and collectively need to fulfill.

Part of the streamlining stems from the fact that most companies of a certain size operate across several jurisdictions, and therefore companies that are subject to differing rules operate to the strictest or highest standard. Another factor is that with transparency comes a new ability to look into the operations and actions of boards, and with this shift, public sentiment and ethical judgments come into play. Yet another factor is that in an increasingly globalized workplace where cultures mix, long-established cultural norms are challenged and the (mal-) practices they have given rise to get publicly questioned, as in the case of a British CEO of a Japanese company.

Playing board games to win

Lucy P. Marcus
Nov 16, 2011 16:18 UTC

The board room is going through an extraordinary time of transition. More is being demanded of boards than ever before, and the activities of boards are under greater scrutiny.

Corporate boards no longer operate in a secretive world behind closed doors, beyond the watchful eyes of the public and media. Investors, stakeholders, regulatory bodies, and governments are demanding more transparency and accountability. The past six months have catapulted the boards of HP, Yahoo, NewsCorp, Goldman Sachs, MF Global, and Olympus, straight into the news headlines.

The reason for this increased scrutiny is a greater public understanding of the role boards can and should play. There is growing awareness by investors, employees, and customers of the consequences of boards and board members not asking hard questions, not adding real value to the organization, and not protecting its future health and wealth.

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