Then: Starboard Value's Proxy Battle Fate at AOL was Decided by One Large Shareholder.
First lets look at what really happened at AOL. As the graph below shows, Starboard had much less control (in blue) in AOL, than top shareholders (see caption for explanation).
Now, Starboard’s chances of winning, on the face of things, didn't look terrible at AOL. After all, There was a 58% chance that they would come out victorious. However, that number changed drastically depending on the vote of a single shareholder, Dodge and Cox. In fact, to a large extent the outcome was determined by which side got Dodge and Cox's vote. When Dodge and Cox eventually decided to vote with management, Starboards chances of winning plummeted to just 29%.
Aside for proxy battle experts and aspirants: People are generally friendly and will often tell you what you want to hear. It is common for both sides to be sure they have a proxy battle in the bag, because of large shareholders being nice to both sides. It would be unsurprising to learn that both AOL's Management and Starboard Value went into the vote thinking Dodge and Cox was on their side. That is why it is so crucial to use methods of analysis that are able to handle reality: massive uncertainty in how people will vote, even if they have told you they are with you.
The graph below is the same as above, only now showing the current shareholders in Office Depot. Notice how eerily similar Starboard's strategic position at Office Depot is to AOL:
- Again Starboard Value is far from the largest shareholder, though much closer here
- Again we have a large shareholder - BC Partners -who basically controls the outcome of a potential proxy battle.
It's not all bad news for Starboard: Office Depot is deja vu in more ways than one. Though they lost the proxy battle at AOL, some of their proposals were instituted and AOL's stock appreciated by ~70% while they held it. In that sense too, Office Depot looks very similar to AOL. Namely the share price is up 100% since Starboard started buying in. Starboard Value may be losing battles, but so far they are winning the war! And despite the long odds, Starboard appears to be gearing up for a fight, with their recent retainer of Bob Nardelli, the former chief of companies such as Home Depot and Chrysler, and Joseph Vassalluzzo, a former vice chairman of Staples Inc. Both are powerful choices for an opposition slate of directors!
Next time we'll cover the Office Depot innovation that Starboard was attempting to counter with their recent letter to independent directors. Depending on your view, it is either the greatest or the worst thing to hit the field of corporate governance in years. I call it the Permanent White-Knight Defense. Starboard might call it the Chained White Knight Defense. Whatever your take, it makes the poison pill, the subject of much gnashing of teeth, look like a kitten in a pretty pink bow, so tune in next week!