In each of these cases, the boards decided it was time for the
founders to step down from their roles either as chief executive or
chairman, but faced stiff resistance from the founders, some of whom
used their substantial equity stakes to fight back.
Corporate governance experts expect more such corporate dramas as
shareholders are increasingly holding boards accountable for
succession planning, investment returns and overall fiduciary
duties. As a result, boards are asserting their authority more
frequently, which can put them on collision courses with CEOs,
"Today's boards are increasingly feeling pressure to anticipate the
CEO leadership needed to drive future success. This is especially
true when the CEO is the founder of the company," said Jane
Stevenson, head of the global CEO succession practice at Korn Ferry
"In these situations the board can feel significant conflict between
appropriate homage to the past and the leadership needed to drive
success in the future."
As many as 42 Fortune 500 companies have founders in CEO positions,
according to data compiled by recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles
for Reuters. These founder-CEOs have an average tenure of 22.5
years, compared with around six years for non-founder CEOs.
"Founders are often the ones that have the 'special sauce' that
makes a company's offering and culture work, so they might be given
additional latitude ... as their vision drove value creation in the
first place," said Heidrick & Struggles' Vice Chairman John Wood.
American Apparel, under Charney's leadership, was known for its racy
advertising and "Made in the USA" sweatshop-free model. However, the
company has posted losses in almost every quarter in the last four
years and has come under fire for lax financial controls.
In June, the board fired Charney for allegedly misusing corporate
funds and helping to spread nude photos of a former employee on the
Internet. Charney has denied the allegations and is fighting to
regain control of the company. He increased his stake in the apparel
retailer to 44 percent, from about 27 percent, but signed over his
voting rights and shares to the hedge fund Standard General as
collateral for a loan.
Charney intends to have a say over key decisions, such as the makeup
of the board or M&A deals, whether or not he returns as CEO, a
source close to the matter said this week.
American Apparel is waiting for the results of an internal
investigation before deciding what to do about its founder. A
spokesman for American Apparel declined to comment.
In the case of Lululemon, the Canadian yoga apparel chain was once
one of the hottest stocks in retail but it suffered a damaging
recall last year involving see-through yoga pants. Late last year,
Chip Wilson, the company's founder, stepped down as non-executive
chairman to pave the way for new CEO Laurent Potdevin to run the
Wilson, however, remained on the board so that directors could tap
his knowledge about the company and its customers. The board assured
Potdevin that he would be able to run Lululemon without undue
influence from Wilson, according to a source familiar with the
situation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But tensions began to build as some directors felt Wilson wanted to
be excessively involved in management decisions; at the same time,
Wilson, who has a 27 percent stake in Lululemon, became increasingly
frustrated that he was not being fully heard, the source said.
Representatives for Wilson and Lululemon declined to comment.
The problems spilled out into the open in June, when Wilson lashed
out at the board, saying its new chairman and another director were
too focused on short-term growth.
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The two sides settled last week, when Wilson agreed not to wage a
proxy contest and to sell half his stake to private equity firm
Still, shares of Lululemon have fallen more than 40 percent since
Potdevin's appointment in December, underscoring the toll such
corporate clashes can take on share valuations.
Similar battles between the boards and founders of Men's Wearhouse,
Best Buy and Groupon Inc have rattled their investors until the
disagreements were finally settled.
"Numerous times I've seen first-hand how the founder dynamic can be
particularly challenging for fellow board members to successfully
grapple with. Internal disputes that become public are one of the
most dysfunctional events companies face," said Brad Allen, the
founder of Branav Shareholder Advisory Services, which counsels
boards and shareholders on governance issues.
FOUNDERS AS AN ASSET
To be sure, not all founder departures are acrimonious. Directors
and recruiters say many founders have a deep well of knowledge about
their companies and customers, and they can be invaluable to their
Former Nielsen Holdings N.V. CEO David Calhoun said he used to seek
advice from Arthur Nielsen Jr on how to resist pressure from media
clients for favorable research. Nielsen Jr is credited with
transforming the company, which his father founded in 1923, into a
name synonymous with television ratings.
"Art Jr's advice went to the heart of our business: the potential
conflict between serving client's needs (the companies we measure)
and our commitment to objective measurement," said Calhoun, who is
now executive chairman at Nielsen.
Bill Ford had fully supported Alan Mulally when he took over as CEO
of Ford Motor Co in September 2006, said Marshall Goldsmith, an
executive coach who has worked with Mulally.
Early in his tenure, when some top executives challenged Mulally's
initiative to conduct a weekly review of business priorities, he had
the backing of Ford, who helped Mulally implement the plan. The
weekly review turned out to be central to the No.2 U.S. automaker's
successful turnaround, according to Goldsmith.
Goldsmith said his advice to founders is to pick a date to hand off
the company and start working on a succession plan.
"Leave with dignity, don't get thrown out," Goldsmith said.
(Reporting by Nadia Damouni; Additional reporting by Euan Rocha;
Editing by Paritosh Bansal and Tiffany Wu)
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