True stories from Canada’s bloodiest proxy battles

Jun 04, 2013
<p>Jaw-dropping end to CIRI conference in Whistler, BC&nbsp;</p>

CIRI’s annual conference wrapped up today in Whistler, British Columbia with a day bookended by dreamy fortunetelling at the beginning and gripping true stories at the end.

Todd Hirsch, senior economist for ATB Financial, an Alberta crown corporation, gave a keynote address uncharacteristic for his profession – optimistic and funny – building up to call for creativity that moved even some hard-bitten IROs in the audience.

After skipping lightly over the ‘potholes’ in the world economy’s ‘hesitant and uneven’ road to recovery, from Europe mired in the recession to China’s slowdown to political impasse in the US, Hirsch got to ‘cute little cuddly Canada.’

Since being the darling of the G8 in 2011, Canada has been knocked hard by falling exports in 2012 and weakness in commodity prices. Two bright areas for Hirsch: forestry, coming out of a decade of ill fortune, and agriculture, with some of the world’s most technologically advanced farmers here. 

The boiling frog dilemma coverHirsch’s recent book, The boiling frog dilemma: Saving Canada from economic decline, suggests that while Canada has done nearly everything right during its whole history, the shifting global economy could leave it behind if it doesn’t adapt.

Hirsch exhorted Canadians to unleash their ‘creative spirit’. ‘It’s all about great ideas,’ he said. He also pushed young Canadians to get their full overseas experience, or OE as Aussies call it.

War stories
The last session of the conference was also the best. The top three companies from the Financial Post Magazine’s recent list of ‘proxy’s greatest hits’ gathered on the same stage. There’s nothing like a good story to get an audience’s attention, and last year’s proxy fights against hedge fund activists at CP Railway, TELUS and Agrium were high drama indeed.

This ‘power lunch’ was superbly moderated by a lawyer who was involved with the Agrium and TELUS fights, Walied Soliman from law firm Norton Rose Canada. 

John Wheeler and Richard Downey
John Wheeler from TELUS and Agrium's Richard Downey with stories from the trenches

Activism, Soliman warned, is bound to keep growing in Canada. ‘We are the most shareholder activism-friendly jurisdiction in the world,’ he said, ticking off factors like a 10 percent early warning threshold (compared to 5 percent in the US) and a scarcity of staggered boards. Plus there are many activist funds and major shareholders are keen to back new campaigns.

John Wheeler from TELUS and Richard Downey from Agrium each told nail-biting tales of punch, counterpunch and finally hard-won victory (‘It was beautiful!’ Soliman burst out.) Janet Weiss, CP’s former IRO, wryly recounted CP’s uphill battle and subsequent defeat. All three offered up plenty of salty comments about the activists – and about ISS.

Scary stuff. But inspiring. IR is an exciting profession – as challenging as any other – offering up victories along with the risk of bittersweet defeat.

In the follow-up to the conference, as CIRI makes session recordings and presentations available, the shareholder activism power lunch deserves to be a bestseller in the thriller genre. 

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