Last year was a good year to be an activist. Not so much for the companies on the receiving end of campaigns.
A wave of shareholder activism last year had corporate leaders on edge. Activists hit a record number of companies in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom, according to the research group Activist Insight. In the U.S., activists publicly targeted 493 companies in 2018 amid acquisition activity and market volatility. Activists gained 267 board seats in the year, based on proxy battles and settlements with companies. The top targeted sectors were services, which accounted for one-quarter of all campaigns, followed by financial firms and technology.
Globally, activists targeted more than 900 public companies last year, given increasing interest in going abroad for targets. Even activist-averse Japan had an uptick in activist campaigns.
Activists also were more successful getting companies to cave to their demands.
“In 2017, companies seemed more reluctant to settle with activists, leading to a number of high-profile proxy fights that culminated in the largest contest in history at Proctor & Gamble, where we advised Trian Partners in securing a board seat,” according to the law firm Schulte, Roth & Zabel, writing in an Activist Insight research report. “However, companies took a different approach in 2018, often choosing to settle with their activist shareholders rather than engaging in drawn-out campaigns.”
Schulte, Roth & Zabel also represented Starboard Value in its early 2019 battle with pizza franchise Papa Johns International. Starboard agreed to invest up to $250 million in the company and won a seat on the board, reducing founder John Schnatter’s stake in the company from 30 percent to 26 percent, according to a published report.
Luckily for companies, activist activity in U.S. companies slowed in the first quarter of 2019 to 189 campaigns, down from 227 in the first quarter of 2018, according Activist Insight.
There’s no reason to think that 2019 won’t be another busy year, however. The research company thinks activists may push for more changes as credit markets tighten, the outlook begins to darken and the 2017 tax cuts begin to wear off.