Target board fight finished; CEO wants focus back on storesby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
Target shareholders have rejected a hedge fund manager's bid to shake up the retailer's board. Shareholders voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of four incumbent board members up for re-election. The vote is seen by many as a repudiation of ideas activist Wall Street investor Bill Ackman had for Target.
St. Paul, Minn. — Ackman spent $10 million trying to convince Target shareholders that the company's board needed fresh blood, new perspectives and greater expertise in areas such as credit cards, real estate and growing Target's grocery business.
But preliminary counts indicate each of the incumbent board members received more than 70 percent of votes cast. And none of the candidates on Ackman's slate, including himself, got more than about a quarter of the votes cast.
Ackman blamed the low vote count on several factors. For one thing, shareholders had to pick one group or the other. They couldn't readily split their votes between the incumbent board members and his allies. Ackman complained big investors were afraid that a vote for Ackman's slate would hurt their relations with Target's top executives.
"We had a lot of very positive feedback from shareholders who said to us, 'Look we love what you're doing, keep doing it. But we're not going to be able to vote for you,'" Ackman said. "Which is kind of any interesting thing. They said, 'We can't vote for you. Management can stop talking to us and we need to talk to management and have a relationship in order for us to function.'"
Still, Ackman argued the votes his slate won sent a message to Target and other corporate boards. He contends companies will be more open to considering new board members in order to avoid fights like the one he and Target had.
"I guarantee you that every S&P 500 company is going to take a very close look at their nominating practices, as a result of what happened to Target," Ackman said.
Soon after the vote Ackman appeared to be backing away from his commitment to hold the stock for five years if he made it to the board. Less than an hour after the vote results were announced, he said he may or may hold the stock in the long term.
"If we decide this is not a good investment or we find a better place to put our capital, we'll put our capital some place else," he said. "But we do think this is very undervalued stock. We think it is an excellent management team [and] a great company. We think there is opportunity for them to create value going forward."
Target's stock price has tumbled and its same-store sales have slid as shoppers reign in their spending. Analysts say Target has been losing shoppers to Wal-Mart, which tries to undercut every other retailer on price.
Ackman pushed Target management to try several moves Ackman figured would pump up Target's earnings and stock price. One idea was to sell the land under the retailer's stores and warehouses. Target could then lease back the land.
Management rejected that idea. Soon after, Ackman began his campaign to grab four or five seats on the Target board.
Long-time Target shareholder Aaron Epstein sees Ackman as a slick Wall Streeter out to make a fast buck.
"His business is trying to make as much money as he possibly can, quick," Epstein said. "He would be endangering the future of the company and I want this company to be solid and on good footing."
Epstein voted for all the incumbent board members up for election.
Target spent $11 million trying to persuade shareholders like Epstein to reject Ackman's proposal. Target Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said he's glad the board fight is over. Now, he says he can focus on growing Target's business.
"I'm excited to spend more time in our stores and focus on building the best retail franchise we possibly can at Target," Steinhafel said. "It's a challenging retail environment. Our same-store sales are not where we would like them to be. So, I'm excited about re-engaging in our business and taking it to a new level."
Steinhafel said Target will be doubling the amount of groceries offered in most Target stores and the retailer will step up its efforts to convince shoppers that Target can compete with any rival -- including Wal-Mart -- on price.
- Morning Edition, 05/29/2009, 7:20 a.m.