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投資理財

WeWork上市敗局中的亮點:其實投資人關心的是公司治理

Ellen Florian 2019年10月10日

對投資人來說,公司嚴重的治理問題意味著巨大的風險。

WeWork的上市爭議啟端于8月中旬的S-1文件登記,終在9月24日以聯合創始人和首席執行官亞當·諾依曼的下臺而告終,如果說這次災難性的上市有什么可圈可點之處,那就是:對投資人來說,存在嚴重治理疏失的公司(不僅僅是公司的財務狀況),投資風險過高。

“在過去,我們也看到像谷歌和Facebook等公司上市的時候,公司治理也是有問題的,但人人都說,好吧,那是一種特色,不是漏洞。由創始人領導的公司就會這樣被認為。”公司治理專家、ValueEdge咨詢公司的副主席內爾·米諾說。“但現在,市場已經明白糟糕的公司治理所帶來的風險,尤其是這家公司出現了內部交易現象。”

諾依曼的挫敗

盡管被趕下首席執行官的位置,諾依曼仍留任非執行主席,他的投票權從每股10票降到了每股3票。9月下旬透露的消息指,諾依曼在飛機上抽大麻,這可能是導致他挫敗的最后一根稻草,因為投資者對首席執行官的不良行為越來越忍受不了。(另一名行為古怪的首席執行官在卷入爭議數十年后,最近也下臺了:Overstock的帕特里克·布萊恩在承認與俄羅斯間諜瑪利亞·布提娜有過感情糾葛后辭職,布提娜試圖滲透美國政治團體以便在2016年美國大選中為俄羅斯謀求利益。)但8月在WeWork上市事件中公諸于世并引發激烈辯論的公司治理不善問題,激起了投資者的怒火,他們受夠了那些破壞規則的所謂有遠見的創始人。這些人或許有顛覆性的點子并付諸實施,但沒有能力把公司帶到偉大和穩固的高度。“最重要的教訓是給華爾街的。”米諾說,“別讓這些公司上市,千萬別。”

顯然諾依曼對公司非常重要,以至于在公司的上市文件中將他列為一個風險因素:“亞當·諾依曼,我們的聯合創始人和首席執行官,對于公司的運作至關重要。他是設定公司遠景、戰略方向和運營優先順序的關鍵人物。”上市文件中提到,“如果亞當不能繼續成為我們的首席執行官,將對公司業務造成實質性的負面影響。”有一件事是肯定的:讓他來當首席執行官,對于已經暫停的上市計劃產生了非常負面的影響。

董事會的過失

WeWork事件還提供了關于董事會過失的重要教訓。董事會和日本科技巨頭軟銀擁有公司大部分股份,他們成功地讓諾依曼下臺了,但當時并不能確保出現這樣的結果,因為董事們沒有獲得他們應有的監管公司的權力。WeWork提供給公眾的股票具有雙重股權結構——意味著精選的股東有超越經濟利益的公司決策投票權——這不同于一股一票的宗旨,對多數長期股東來說,這才是好的公司治理。諾依曼擁有的股票每股有20個投票權,使得他可以控制公司,包括遴選董事人選。

說白了:諾依曼“因為他的股票,獲得了所有底牌,”德拉華大學約翰·溫伯格公司治理研究中心的主任查爾斯·埃爾森說。當然董事會可以投票解雇諾依曼,但諾依曼也有權更換董事會。“如果你細想,這次其實人們反對的是雙重股權結構,而不是諾依曼。”

WeWorks修改后的S-1上市文件

公眾對雙重股權結構以及WeWork的其他非正統的公司治理做法的不滿,于是爆發了,比如諾依曼的內部交易、他的非董事會成員的妻子將在諾依曼死亡或殘疾時選定接班人等等,此后WeWork修改了一些公司治理程序。修改后的S-1文件將諾依曼那令人厭惡的每股20票超級投票權改為了仍讓人惱火的每股10票。只有在諾依曼死亡或傷殘,并且他的累計股票數跌至少于公司總股票的5%時,他的投票權才會跌回一股一票。這些改動也算是大的,但又有什么區別呢?仍然無法讓上市計劃正常進行。

股東權利組織機構投資者委員會的副主任艾米·鮑勒斯說,這些更改受到了歡迎。但并沒有“改變根本性的控制權問題”,她認為更改后的文本仍給予亞當·諾依曼“最大的公司控制權”。對于由創始人領導的公司來說,每股10票是比較典型的分配法,以便創始人保持對公司的控制,但它仍是一種超級投票權,可以讓諾依曼為所欲為——公司沒有任何的日落條款輔之。機構投資者委員會希望看到超級投票權行使不超過7年的日落條款,而今年Lyft和Pinterest上市時有著每股20票的雙重股權結構。

WeWork的上市修改稿中還有其他一些積極的有關公司治理的變更。比如說:諾依曼要將相關地產交易中的利益交給公司,年底前任命一位領頭的獨立董事,由董事會——而不是他的妻子——選擇接任的首席執行官,任命哈佛教授弗朗西斯·弗雷加入此前純男性的董事會。盡管走向了正確的方向,但這一切并未抹除一個事實,即最初的公司治理失策是無法讓人接受的。“在當前的環境下,帶著一個純男性的董事會準備上市,這是一個巨大的危險信號。”明晟公司的治理專家里克·馬歇爾說,“這讓董事會的每個成員的形象都呈現不佳,說明他們根本沒有意識到這一點。”

創始人最懂公司,這觀念該終結了嗎?

創始人最明白公司并應該全權掌控,引領公司走向他/她認為合適的方向,這種觀念在科技行業并不新鮮。但這是一種較新的趨勢。這樣的股權運用通常見諸家族企業比如紐約時報公司和福特汽車。2004年谷歌以雙重股權結構上市改變了這一點,其他科技公司如Facebook、Zynga和Snap都照方抓藥。值得一提的是,推特沒有效仿。Facebook的馬克·扎克伯格,盡管最近跌了跟頭,在公司領導權受挑戰一事上卻具備免疫力。“沒有一個創始人是不犯錯的。”鮑勒斯說,“這就是雙重股權結構的問題,它給了創始人太多的控制權,普通股民甚至董事會,在有必要把公司拉向正軌時卻無能為力。”

諾依曼辭職,對于股東和董事會來說是幸運的。因為他們沒有驅逐他的權力,卻讓他看到了出于他自己的經濟利益和公司的最大利益,他應該辭職。WeWork還未盈利,需要注入資金才能成長——這無疑讓諾依曼對公司的控制顯得脆弱,因為潛在投資人止步了,上市變得不確定了。如果沒有軟銀的貢獻,諾依曼要融得他想要的金額是困難的。甚至于,讓軟銀來施壓加速上市也是困難的,因為軟銀面臨其自身投資人的壓力,在類似WeWork和Uber等投資項目上軟銀的表現也不佳。“他們有更大的經濟利益,需承受失去得最多。”埃爾森說,“這就是所有者結構的問題。”

離開Uber

驅逐一位有超級投票權的創始人及首席執行官,并非沒有先例。Uber就提供了樣板。2017年在公司經歷了動蕩后,包括系統性性騷擾的指控和首席執行官特拉維斯·卡蘭尼克與一位Uber司機爭論收費問題的視頻,一些主要股東包括也是WeWork的主要投資人的基準資本,寫信要求卡蘭尼克辭職,否則就把信公之于眾。卡蘭尼克退讓了,但他仍保留了超級投票權股份。“我熱愛Uber,超過世上任何事。在這個我人生的困難關頭,我接受投資人的請求,決定辭職,這樣一來優步可以專心發展,而不是被另一場戰斗分神。”卡蘭尼克如是告訴《紐約時報》。后來在那一年,軟銀同意收購Uber的一部分股份,使用了一股一票的公司治理模式。

一段長時期的公眾壓力和投資人的憤怒情緒,才讓諾依曼和WeWork公司修正了他們一些模棱兩可的公司治理做法。也正是這些讓諾依曼辭職了。但這一模式不應該成為未來上市的樣板。往后,董事會不應該卷入這些糟心事,因為他們或許并不能找到出路。

“不要參與花瓶董事會。”米諾說,“你得堅持一些基本的獨立原則,以確保能扮演你應該扮演的監管角色。董事會成員,不應該是盆景。”

?

譯者: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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