The Business Times article, "Corporate activism: Barbarians at the gate no more," was written by Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant
Alvin Chiang, where he outlines how corporate activism has evolved in this new age. The article is excerpted below.
Activism used to be associated with corporate raids and leveraged buyouts, immortalised by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s expose on RJR Nabisco. Their article, “Barbarians at the Gate” showcased how investor activists, through the acquisition of a large stake in a business, used their voting rights to compel the board and management to undertake corporate actions to their own advantage.
Demands for better governance
In this new age of stakeholder capitalism, investor activism has evolved to take on a more compassionate form, less of a greed-driven takeover. Demands for greater transparency and disclosure around business practices have increased calls for corporate accountability.
Today, stakeholder activism has taken on the mantle of sustainability, diversity and inclusivity. The new form of activism embraces the concept of shared values between businesses and stakeholders within the ecosystem. Shareholders are not the only ones clamouring for change; society at large has pushed to get its voice heard through pressure on institutional investors.
Growing activism in Asia
While activism in Asia is traditionally perceived to be more muted than in the mature western markets, things may be changing. With the increase in the flow of funds into the region, there is growing momentum for change – in part led by institutional investors who have committed to the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment. They have set their sights on many family businesses and state-owned enterprises in Southeast Asia, which are now finding it more important than ever to respond to the emerging demands for stronger governance and ethical business practices.
Reacting to activism: A board’s perspective
As businesses grapple with the economic fallout from the wake of the pandemic, boards need to recognise that stakeholder primacy has gained traction and gone mainstream. This has, in turn, helped activism become a constructive force for good. So, instead of dismissing the entire lot as troublemakers, there is value for boards to reflect on the issues raised by activists and understand their points of view. If they are legitimate, it only makes sense to engage them and work together to find solutions that address their concerns.
Activism today is less about being anti-establishment than about being pro-cause. What we are seeing is an awakened generation’s desire to be more actively involved in defining what their world will look like. Perhaps in time, activists would be seen less like barbarians at the gate but rather as crusaders for better governance.