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投资理财

WeWork上市败局中的亮点:其实投资人关心的是公司治理

Ellen Florian 2019年10月10日

对投资人来说,公司严重的治理问题意味着巨大的风险。

WeWork的上市争议启端于8月中旬的S-1文件登记,终在9月24日以联合创始人和首席执行官亚当·诺依曼的下台而告终,如果说这次灾难性的上市有什么可圈可点之处,那就是:对投资人来说,存在严重治理疏失的公司(不仅仅是公司的财务状况),投资风险过高。

“在过去,我们也看到像谷歌和Facebook等公司上市的时候,公司治理也是有问题的,但人人都说,好吧,那是一种特色,不是漏洞。由创始人领导的公司就会这样被认为。”公司治理专家、ValueEdge咨询公司的副主席内尔·米诺说。“但现在,市场已经明白糟糕的公司治理所带来的风险,尤其是这家公司出现了内部交易现象。”

诺依曼的挫败

尽管被赶下首席执行官的位置,诺依曼仍留任非执行主席,他的投票权从每股10票降到了每股3票。9月下旬透露的消息指,诺依曼在飞机上抽大麻,这可能是导致他挫败的最后一根稻草,因为投资者对首席执行官的不良行为越来越忍受不了。(另一名行为古怪的首席执行官在卷入争议数十年后,最近也下台了:Overstock的帕特里克·布莱恩在承认与俄罗斯间谍玛利亚·布提娜有过感情纠葛后辞职,布提娜试图渗透美国政治团体以便在2016年美国大选中为俄罗斯谋求利益。)但8月在WeWork上市事件中公诸于世并引发激烈辩论的公司治理不善问题,激起了投资者的怒火,他们受够了那些破坏规则的所谓有远见的创始人。这些人或许有颠覆性的点子并付诸实施,但没有能力把公司带到伟大和稳固的高度。“最重要的教训是给华尔街的。”米诺说,“别让这些公司上市,千万别。”

显然诺依曼对公司非常重要,以至于在公司的上市文件中将他列为一个风险因素:“亚当·诺依曼,我们的联合创始人和首席执行官,对于公司的运作至关重要。他是设定公司远景、战略方向和运营优先顺序的关键人物。”上市文件中提到,“如果亚当不能继续成为我们的首席执行官,将对公司业务造成实质性的负面影响。”有一件事是肯定的:让他来当首席执行官,对于已经暂停的上市计划产生了非常负面的影响。

董事会的过失

WeWork事件还提供了关于董事会过失的重要教训。董事会和日本科技巨头软银拥有公司大部分股份,他们成功地让诺依曼下台了,但当时并不能确保出现这样的结果,因为董事们没有获得他们应有的监管公司的权力。WeWork提供给公众的股票具有双重股权结构——意味着精选的股东有超越经济利益的公司决策投票权——这不同于一股一票的宗旨,对多数长期股东来说,这才是好的公司治理。诺依曼拥有的股票每股有20个投票权,使得他可以控制公司,包括遴选董事人选。

说白了:诺依曼“因为他的股票,获得了所有底牌,”德拉华大学约翰·温伯格公司治理研究中心的主任查尔斯·埃尔森说。当然董事会可以投票解雇诺依曼,但诺依曼也有权更换董事会。“如果你细想,这次其实人们反对的是双重股权结构,而不是诺依曼。”

WeWorks修改后的S-1上市文件

公众对双重股权结构以及WeWork的其他非正统的公司治理做法的不满,于是爆发了,比如诺依曼的内部交易、他的非董事会成员的妻子将在诺依曼死亡或残疾时选定接班人等等,此后WeWork修改了一些公司治理程序。修改后的S-1文件将诺依曼那令人厌恶的每股20票超级投票权改为了仍让人恼火的每股10票。只有在诺依曼死亡或伤残,并且他的累计股票数跌至少于公司总股票的5%时,他的投票权才会跌回一股一票。这些改动也算是大的,但又有什么区别呢?仍然无法让上市计划正常进行。

股东权利组织机构投资者委员会的副主任艾米·鲍勒斯说,这些更改受到了欢迎。但并没有“改变根本性的控制权问题”,她认为更改后的文本仍给予亚当·诺依曼“最大的公司控制权”。对于由创始人领导的公司来说,每股10票是比较典型的分配法,以便创始人保持对公司的控制,但它仍是一种超级投票权,可以让诺依曼为所欲为——公司没有任何的日落条款辅之。机构投资者委员会希望看到超级投票权行使不超过7年的日落条款,而今年Lyft和Pinterest上市时有着每股20票的双重股权结构。

WeWork的上市修改稿中还有其他一些积极的有关公司治理的变更。比如说:诺依曼要将相关地产交易中的利益交给公司,年底前任命一位领头的独立董事,由董事会——而不是他的妻子——选择接任的首席执行官,任命哈佛教授弗朗西斯·弗雷加入此前纯男性的董事会。尽管走向了正确的方向,但这一切并未抹除一个事实,即最初的公司治理失策是无法让人接受的。“在当前的环境下,带着一个纯男性的董事会准备上市,这是一个巨大的危险信号。”明晟公司的治理专家里克·马歇尔说,“这让董事会的每个成员的形象都呈现不佳,说明他们根本没有意识到这一点。”

创始人最懂公司,这观念该终结了吗?

创始人最明白公司并应该全权掌控,引领公司走向他/她认为合适的方向,这种观念在科技行业并不新鲜。但这是一种较新的趋势。这样的股权运用通常见诸家族企业比如纽约时报公司和福特汽车。2004年谷歌以双重股权结构上市改变了这一点,其他科技公司如Facebook、Zynga和Snap都照方抓药。值得一提的是,推特没有效仿。Facebook的马克·扎克伯格,尽管最近跌了跟头,在公司领导权受挑战一事上却具备免疫力。“没有一个创始人是不犯错的。”鲍勒斯说,“这就是双重股权结构的问题,它给了创始人太多的控制权,普通股民甚至董事会,在有必要把公司拉向正轨时却无能为力。”

诺依曼辞职,对于股东和董事会来说是幸运的。因为他们没有驱逐他的权力,却让他看到了出于他自己的经济利益和公司的最大利益,他应该辞职。WeWork还未盈利,需要注入资金才能成长——这无疑让诺依曼对公司的控制显得脆弱,因为潜在投资人止步了,上市变得不确定了。如果没有软银的贡献,诺依曼要融得他想要的金额是困难的。甚至于,让软银来施压加速上市也是困难的,因为软银面临其自身投资人的压力,在类似WeWork和Uber等投资项目上软银的表现也不佳。“他们有更大的经济利益,需承受失去得最多。”埃尔森说,“这就是所有者结构的问题。”

离开Uber

驱逐一位有超级投票权的创始人及首席执行官,并非没有先例。Uber就提供了样板。2017年在公司经历了动荡后,包括系统性性骚扰的指控和首席执行官特拉维斯·卡兰尼克与一位Uber司机争论收费问题的视频,一些主要股东包括也是WeWork的主要投资人的基准资本,写信要求卡兰尼克辞职,否则就把信公之于众。卡兰尼克退让了,但他仍保留了超级投票权股份。“我热爱Uber,超过世上任何事。在这个我人生的困难关头,我接受投资人的请求,决定辞职,这样一来优步可以专心发展,而不是被另一场战斗分神。”卡兰尼克如是告诉《纽约时报》。后来在那一年,软银同意收购Uber的一部分股份,使用了一股一票的公司治理模式。

一段长时期的公众压力和投资人的愤怒情绪,才让诺依曼和WeWork公司修正了他们一些模棱两可的公司治理做法。也正是这些让诺依曼辞职了。但这一模式不应该成为未来上市的样板。往后,董事会不应该卷入这些糟心事,因为他们或许并不能找到出路。

“不要参与花瓶董事会。”米诺说,“你得坚持一些基本的独立原则,以确保能扮演你应该扮演的监管角色。董事会成员,不应该是盆景。”

 

译者:宣峰

If anything good has come from the disastrous WeWork IPO controversy that has been raging since its S-1 filing in mid-August and ended on September 24 with co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann stepping down, it is this: the investing public looked closely at serious corporate governance lapses—not just the company’s financials—and deemed them too big a risk to invest at lofty private valuations.

“In the past, we had companies like Google and Facebook going public with big governance red flags, and everybody said, Well, that’s a feature, not a bug. That’s what you get with a founder-led entity,” says corporate governance expert Nell Minow, Vice Chair of ValueEdge Advisors. “But now it seems the market is understanding the risks of poor governance particularly with some of the self-dealing in this company.”

Neumann’s undoing

Despite his ouster as CEO, Neumann will remain nonexecutive chairman, and his voting power drops from 10 votes per share to three votes per share. Revelations at late September about Neumann’s pot on a plane may have been the final piece of his undoing as investors show less and less patience with bad CEO behavior. (the recent downfall of another eccentric CEO who has been embroiled in controversy for decades: Overstock’s Patrick Byrne resigned after admitting to a romantic entanglement with Russian spy Maria Butina, who tried to infiltrate political groups to help Russian interests in the 2016 Presidential election.) But the hotly debated governance fumbles brought to light in the WeWork prospectus in August fueled the ire of investors who appear to be fed up with rule-breaking visionary founders who may be able to get a good disruptive idea up and running but do not have what it takes to bring the company to greater, solidly built heights. “The most important lesson here is for Wall Street,” says Minow. “Don’t take these companies public. Just don’t.”

Neumann apparently was so important to the company that it listed him as a risk factor in the public filing: “Adam Neumann, our Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, is critical to our operations. Adam has been key to setting our vision, strategic direction and execution priorities,” the offering states. “If Adam does not continue to serve as our Chief Executive Officer, it could have a material adverse effect on our business.” One thing for sure: Having him serve as CEO has been plenty adverse to the offering, which has been postponed.

Board oversight

But WeWork imparts crucial lessons about board oversight as well. The board and Japanese technology conglomerate Softbank, who owns the largest share of the company, were successful in getting Neumann to step down, but that result wasn’t guaranteed because directors weren’t given the power they should have had to oversee the company. WeWork offered its shares to the public with a dual-class share structure—which means select shareholders have voting power that share structure—which means select shareholders have voting power that surpasses their economic interest in the company—as opposed to the one-share, one-vote tenet considered good corporate governance as far as most long-term shareholders are concerned. Neumann’s shares carried 20 votes each, which gave him control of the company, including the election of directors.

Bottom line: Neumann held “all the cards because of the stock,” says Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. The board could certainly have voted to fire Neumann, but Neumann had the power to replace the board. “If you think about it, this is really more of an indictment against the dual-class structures as opposed to him.”

WeWork’s amended S-1

After the public outcry over this and other unorthodox governance practices such as Neumann’s self-dealing business relationships and his non-board member wife picking his successor in the event of Neumann’s death or disability, WeWork amended some of its governance procedures. The amended S-1 filing changed Neumann’s supervoting shares from an obnoxious 20 votes per share to a merely irritating 10. The voting power would only fall to one-share, one-vote in the event of his death or disability and also if his aggregate number of shares fell to less than 5% of the outstanding stock. The modifications were major, but what kind of difference did it make? Not enough to keep the IPO train on its track.

The changes were welcome, says Amy Borrus, Deputy Director for Council of Institutional Investors, a shareholder rights organization. But it still didn’t “change the essential control problem,” she said, because it left Adam Neumann with “overarching control of the company.” For founder-led companies, 10 votes per share is a typical number assigned in order to keep control, but it’s still a super-voting class that allowed Neumann to do what he wanted—with no firm sunsetting provision in sight. CII likes to see a sunset of no more than seven years on supervoting shares. Lyft and Pinterest went public this year with 20 to one voting structures.

There were other positive changes in WeWork’s governance practices in the amended filing. Among them: Neumann giving profits he received from related real estate transactions to the company, appointing a lead independent director by the end of the year, having the board—not his wife—select any CEO who happens to succeed him, and appointing Harvard professor Frances Frei to the previously all-male board. Despite heading in the right direction, it didn’t erase the fact that the original governance lapses were beyond the pale. “To launch in the current environment with an all-male board was a huge red flag,” says Ric Marshall, a corporate governance expert with MSCI. “It speaks poorly of everybody on that board that they didn’t have more consciousness than that.”

The end of founder knows best?

The concept that founder knows best and should have the reigns to take the company in whatever direction he or she sees fit is not uncommon in the tech industry. But it is a newer trend. Use of such shares were generally seen in family-owned businesses like The New York Times Co. and Ford Motor. That changed in 2004 when Google went public with dual-class shares. Other tech companies like Facebook, Zynga, and Snap followed suit. Twitter, notably, did not. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, despite major recent stumbles, has been immune to challenges to his leadership. “No founder is infallible,” says Borrus. “That’s the problem with dual class stock. It leaves founders with way too much control and leaves public shareholders and even the board in very weak positions to push for course corrections when there is a need.”

Shareholders and the board got lucky with getting Neumann to resign his leadership. Since they didn’t have the usual powers to oust him, they were able to make him see that it was in his economic interest, and the best interest of the company, to step aside. WeWork, which is not profitable, needed infusions of cash to grow—which surely made Neumann’s control tenuous as potential investors balked and the IPO became uncertain. It would have been difficult for him to raise the money he needed without Softbank’s contribution. Even still, it must have been difficult for Softbank to turn up the heat considering the strain it is under from its own investors thanks to big bets like WeWork and Uber that haven’t performed well. “They have the larger economic interest and stand to lose the most,” says Elson. “That’s the problem with the ownership structure.

Exit at Uber

Forcing out a founder-CEO with supervoting shares is not unprecedented. Uber provided a template. In 2017, after months of tumult at the company, including allegations of systemic sexual harassment and a video of CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver over fares, major shareholders, including Benchmark Capital, which is also a major investor in WeWork, wrote a letter demanding Kalanick exit or they go public with the letter. Kalanick surrendered while still keeping his supervoting shares. “I love Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight,” Kalanick told the New York Times. Later that year, Softbank agreed to purchase a stake in Uber in an arrangement that employed a one-share, one-vote model of corporate governance.

Public pressure and investor outrage went a long way in getting Neumann and the company to amend some of their dubious corporate governance. It also worked well in getting him to resign. But this pattern shouldn’t be the prototype for future offerings. Going forward, boards shouldn’t get themselves into these messes because they may not be able to figure a way to get out.

“Don’t go on a pretend board,” says Minow. “You have to insist on some elements of independence to make sure you’re capable of providing the oversight role that you’re supposed to do. You’re not there to be a potted plant.”

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