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D’accord avec les pratiques exemplaires de gouvernance | Mais pour les autres …

30 mai 2015

Vous aurez sûrement beaucoup de plaisir (et aussi de dépit…) à lire cet article publié par Steven Davidoff Solomon* paru dans la section Business du New York Times du 26 mai 2015.

Il s’agit d’une situation vraiment cocasse où la firme d’un investisseur connu (Gamco Investors) prêche la bonne parole de la saine gouvernance à qui veut l’entendre mais n’en a rien à foutre lorsqu’il s’agit de ses propres affaires. « Faites ce que je vous dis et non ce que je fais ».

M. Gabelli est un investisseur bien connu du monde des actionnaires activistes; il prône l’accroissement de la valeur des actions par l’amélioration de la gouvernance des entreprises ciblées.

Loin de moi l’idée de condamner l’ensemble de ses agissements, mais l’auteur de l’article conclue fermement qu’il ne pratique pas ce qu’il prêche.

Il travaille plutôt à son enrichissement personnel et à celui de sa famille. À mon humble avis, il y a encore trop de situations similaires, partout dans le monde.

La bonne gouvernance eu égard à l’entité, en tenant compte de l’ensemble des parties prenantes, n’est pas encore au rendez-vous !

L’actionnaire principal, et souvent majoritaire, ne doit-il pas se préoccuper des préceptes de la saine gouvernance ? Ou doit-il gérer exclusivement en fonction de ses intérêts personnels ?

J’aimerais vous entendre à ce propos, après avoir lu l’article de M. Steven Davidoff Solomon ci-dessous.

A Shareholder Advocate in Word, but Not in Practice

Mario J. Gabelli’s investment firm, Gamco Investors, is another shareholder warrior telling companies to create value through good corporate governance. Yet, what about Gamco’s own governance?

Mr. Gabelli, who is 72, is a well-known investor, and Gamco has $47.5 billion in assets under management, mostly a hodgepodge of mutual funds for the average investor. Mr. Gabelli is also an aggressive advocate for shareholder rights, the rare mutual fund manager who is willing to engage in a proxy contest.Axe1_collaboration

That would be acceptable, and perhaps even laudable, except that Gamco’s own corporate governance is on par with that of a Roman emperor, giving all the power to Mr. Gabelli, who wields it with impunity for his personal benefit.

Mr. Gabelli owns 72 percent of Gamco, but he has also arranged for Gamco to have a dual-class stock structure to ensure his control. The stock with higher voting rights is owned almost exclusively by GGCP, a private company that Mr. Gabelli controls, giving him 94 percent of the voting power.

It is power that Mr. Gabelli converts into personal profit.

In 2014, Gamco paid Mr. Gabelli $88.5 million in cash, a raise from 2013, when he made $85 million. That sum made Mr. Gabelli one of the highest paid chief executives in the country and eclipsed the compensation of the leader of any other publicly traded asset-management company. For example, Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was paid $23.8 million.

Mr. Gabelli’s pay comes from a deal he reached with Gamco at the time of its initial public offering that pays him 10 percent of its pretax profits. Shareholders recently approved an amended agreement to provide some tax benefits to Mr. Gabelli who, of course, was kind enough to vote in favor, assuring its passage. Other shareholders also approved it, but because it was better than the old arrangement, who can blame them?

Mr. Gabelli has used his control to seemingly handpick Gamco’s board.

Directors include Mr. Gabelli’s daughter and one of his sons. Other independent directors have financial benefits they get from their Gamco affiliation. For instance, Robert S. Prather Jr. is the lead independent director and chairman of the compensation committee. He is considered independent despite the fact that Gamco has been nominating him for other boards in connection with their investments, earning him hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

A daughter of another independent director, Raymond C. Avansino Jr., is employed by Gamco, which paid her more than $600,000 last year. Mr. Avansino, who sits on the governance committee, is chief executive of a company that leases property to Gamco.

Family plays a big role at Gamco.

In addition to sitting on the board, Mr. Gabelli’s daughter runs his charitable foundation. The company employs his three sons, two of whom earned more than a million dollars when incentive compensation was included. Mr. Gabelli’s daughter-in-law and brother make six-figure salaries. Mr. Gabelli’s wife, who works in marketing, made more than $5 million last year.

There is more. Mr. Gabelli seems to have no compunction about other conflicted dealings with Gamco. The company’s disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission for related-party transaction goes on for five pages. Mr. Gabelli’s family owns Gamco’s headquarters and his private company owns the aircraft it uses to fly him around.

Mr. Gabelli has also had sharp elbows in dealing with his business partners. After the other founding partners of Gamco accused Mr. Gabelli of squeezing them out, he settled the litigation for about $100 million after a bitter battle.

Gamco declined to respond to requests for comment.

This would all be just another story of an entrenched chief executive who treats the company as his own playground were Gamco not an asset manager, which is a fiduciary to the ordinary people who give Gamco money to invest. Not only is it an asset manager, it is an active one, pressing companies to improve their corporate governance. In other words, Gamco appears to be a shareholder advocate for everyone but itself.

And so it may have been hypocritical when Mr. Gabelli recently posted on Twitter: “French corporate governance … takes turn to ‘ugly’ …. As companies given option to implement ‘loyalty share’ rule …. will Vivendi opt out.” Mr. Gabelli was noting a recent turn in France to give some shares more voting rights if they are held for a longer period. Mr. Gabelli may have a fair point in his criticism, but it is difficult to take from a man who freely uses his own elevated voting rights to control Gamco.

In a similar vein, in a recent proxy contest to put three directors on the board of Myers Industries, Gamco argued it was concerned about the company’s corporate governance practices because it had plurality voting to elect directors. At least Myers allowed its shareholders a real vote and the ability to appoint directors. Similarly, Mr. Gabelli wrote several years ago in urging Diebold to drop a poison pill that Gamco’s governance philosophy was “not for management” or “against management” but that the company was “committed to shareholder value creation.” Later, Gamco nominated Mr. Prather as a director at Diebold, where he made $209,000 last year. Did I mention before that Mr. Prather is Gamco’s lead independent director?

Perhaps most brazen are the “Gandhian” corporate governance principles that Gamco contends it lives by. On May 16, 1988, Mr. Gabelli issued a “Magna Carta of Shareholder Rights,” which says the company favors “one-share, one-vote; golden parachutes; and cash incentives” while it opposes “poison pills, supermajority voting and super-dilutive stock options.” Mr. Gabelli could very well be a Gamco target if he did not control the company.

Gamco’s stock price over the last five years has not only trailed BlackRock’s by 45 percent, it has also trailed the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index by about 19 percent.

While Mr. Gabelli says he is for “shareholder value creation,” but he has done little of it at Gamco. During his time at the company, Mr. Gabelli has enriched himself and his family.

The next time Mr. Gabelli writes to a company about its corporate governance practices or appears on CNBC, the response should be something different than worship of an old-hand asset manager. Instead, it would be fair to hold Mr. Gabelli to a higher standard, namely the one he likes to preach to other companies, the same principles he espouses for others.

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