Good news, Foolish investors: paying attention to what goes on at your companies, voting your proxies, and making some noise when necessary actually is working to encourage change within some corporate management teams. So don't give up now, and if you haven't yet taken up the cause for better shareholder treatment, it's not too late to start.
Nabors just got more neighborly for shareholders
Nabors Industries (NYSE: NBR ) raised eyebrows (and ire) last year when word got out that former CEO Eugene Isenberg was entitled to a $100 million goodbye payout from the company, even though he wasn't actually going anywhere. (He's staying on as chairman.)
Concerns about Nabors' compensation policies weren't a new development. Isenberg's previous contract called for a $264 million payout on the end of his CEO tenure, but the company ratcheted it down after shareholders vocally objected several years ago.
Apparently shareholder displeasure has made an impression. Isenberg has done what many corporate executives fail to do these days: exercise his free will regardless of contracts and legal entitlements. Isenberg has voluntarily forfeited the $100 million payout. Isenberg also stated that he had been planning on donating the money to charity, and hoped that the company might throw a "substantial portion" of it to charity.
GMI, the leading independent provider of global corporate governance ratings, has followed the compensation issues at Nabors for years, and gave Isenberg's decision the thumbs-up as a rare positive development at the company, which GMI has rated poorly for some time.
As GMI's Paul Hodgson pointed out, maybe Isenberg had a change of heart because shareholders are angry, or maybe it's because the situation reached the public eye and attracted unwanted attention to the company.
Regardless of motivation, this is a victory for concerned American shareholders. It illustrates that shareholder attention and action may very well cause corporate managements and boards to rethink some of their most egregious, shareholder-unfriendly policies, including pay that's not tied to true business performance.
This year very well could usher in more and more shareholder victories against negative corporate conduct that's contrary to shareholder value, such as high CEO pay for low business performance.
The 2012 proxy season isn't in full swing yet, but the first shareholder rejection of a company's pay policies has already occurred. At Actuant (NYSE: ATU ) , 54% of shareholders voted against the company's compensation in its say-on-pay vote in January.
Despite victories and strong messages, though, there's still the sense that many investors remain fairly apathetic to the positive revolution brewing in the relationship between companies and their shareholders.
SmartMoney's Sarah Morgan recently issued a reminder that in the grand scheme of things, "nay on pay" votes have been rare so far. Last year, shareholders at only 1.6% of Russell 3000 components (or 36 companies) rejected pay policies with their votes. On the other hand, about 350 companies' approvals squeaked by so narrowly they're at risk for future rejections.
Still, it's significant that some very major companies got compensation comeuppances last year. Fully half of Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) shareholders voted against the tech giant's compensation policies, and household name Stanley Black & Decker (NYSE: SWK ) experienced a resounding defeat.
Even megafinancier and too-big-to-fail poster child Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) experienced a dusting of shareholder reprimand last year. An unexpectedly large and significant number of its shareholders (35.5%) voted against its executives receiving relocation reimbursements if they lost money on home sales. Traditionally, first-time proposals of that nature don't receive much shareholder support.
Pushing for change, one vote at a time
For too long, shareholder engagement hasn't been an "in thing" in our marketplace; it's been too woefully skewed toward the short-term view. For years, investors were encouraged to forget that they're part owners of public companies. Many were also indoctrinated to follow the dubious Wall Street Rule (paraphrase: Side with management or sell your shares, suckers).
Clearly, many investors are waking up to the concept of ownership and responsibility, and that their votes and opinions can, should, and do count. So let's not stop now. We'll no longer put up with squandering shareholder capital on compensation packages that aren't tied to performance, therefore enriching the few at the expense of the many.
In 2012, let's send the message that we're paying real attention to how the companies we've put our hard-earned capital into are managed. Shareholder-friendly changes could become far more common, even if they've been a long time coming.
Speaking of change, meet "The Real Cash Kings Changing the Face of Retail." This report is available for free now, but it won't be forever, so hurry and find out which companies are charging into the future instead of falling behind.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.