Welcome to the March 2013 edition of The Director's Dilemma.
This month our real life case study focuses on the challenges associated with successfully taking an equity position and a board seat with a promising SME that is currently underperforming and is lacking clarity in its current governance arrangements.
Consider: Which response would you choose and why?
Sam is an experienced manager and has worked for over twenty years in his industry. He has also sat on two not-for-profit boards and enjoys the governance role. Now he has an opportunity to buy an equity stake in a small business that has a product and service for which market demand is growing.
The business has not been growing quickly due to flat market conditions and revenue has not increased substantially as a consequence. The current owners are a husband and wife team and are tired; they have run the business for many years and want to retire.
The proposal is that Sam should purchase 40% of the company and take a seat on the board. The existing owners would retain 30% equity each and a shareholder’s agreement would stipulate that board decisions would require a 70% majority to be agreed. The current board has three members consisting of the owners and an ‘independent’ chairman who is the lawyer and a long-standing friend of the owners. The proposal is that he should remain as “he adds a lot of value and sees things we would miss”.
Sam intends not to work in the company but to be merely a shareholder and director. He has ideas for improving the growth and increasing the value of the company but wants to retain his full time employment in a larger corporation as a security measure. His employer is happy for him to take on a board seat and there is no direct competition between the two companies so Sam would have no conflict of interest; however, Sam’s boss, who is a friend and mentor to Sam, is uneasy and has suggested that Sam could find himself outmanoeuvred in the boardroom and overcharged for his equity. Sam is appreciative of the counsel but believes the shareholder agreement protects his interests. He would like to discuss board dynamics with the current owners but they seem not to be interested as they say the Chairman handles all the compliance and they just run the business so there is nothing to worry about.
How should Sam handle this issue?