Warren Buffett On Board Governance, Director Selection And Compensation
Board governance was the dominant theme in Warren Buffett’s annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Here’s an excerpt from the letter.
Boards Of Directors
In recent years, both the composition of corporate boards and their purpose have become hot topics. Once, debate about the responsibilities of boards was largely limited to lawyers; today, institutional investors and politicians have weighed in as well.
My credentials for discussing corporate governance include the fact that, over the last 62 years, I have served as a director of 21 publicly-owned companies (listed below). In all but two of them, I have represented a substantial holding of stock. In a few cases, I have tried to implement important change.
During the first 30 or so years of my services, it was rare to find a woman in the room unless she represented a family controlling the enterprise. This year, it should be noted, marks the 100thanniversary of the 19thAmendment, which guaranteed American women the right to have their voices heard in a voting booth. Their attaining similar status in a board room remains a work in progress.
Over the years, many new rules and guidelines pertaining to board composition and duties have come into being. The bedrock challenge for directors, nevertheless, remains constant: Find and retain a talented CEO –possessing integrity, for sure – who will be devoted to the company for his/her business lifetime. Often, that task is hard. When directors get it right, though, they need to do little else. But when they mess it up......
Audit committees now work much harder than they once did and almost always view the job with appropriate seriousness. Nevertheless, these committees remain no match for managers who wish to game numbers, an offense that has been encouraged by the scourge of earnings “guidance” and the desire of CEOs to “hit the number.” My direct experience (limited, thankfully) with CEOs who have played with a company’s numbers indicates that they were more often prompted by ego than by a desire for financial gain.
Compensation committees now rely much more heavily on consultants than they used to. Consequently, compensation arrangements have become more complicated – what committee member wants to explain paying large fees year after year for a simple plan? – and the reading of proxy material has become a mind-numbing experience.
One very important improvement in corporate governance has been mandated: a regularly-scheduled“executive session” of directors at which the CEO is barred. Prior to that change, truly frank discussions of a CEO’s skills, acquisition decisions and compensation were rare.
Acquisition proposals remain a particularly vexing problem for board members. The legal orchestration for making deals has been refined and expanded (a word aptly describing attendant costs as well). But I have yet to see a CEO who craves an acquisition bring in an informed and articulate critic to argue against it. And yes, include me among the guilty.