Go out & play defense!

The rummage sale level of stock prices has produced an uptick in hostile takeover activity – and in the fear of unwanted suitors – according to the March 2009 issue of Mergers & Acquisitions magazine. As might be expected, there’s a step-up in defensive play among CEOs, boards and investor relations people:

Until last year, the activist investor community had seemingly convinced companies that shareholders rights plans and the cherished poison pill were against the best interest of shareholders. However, as hostile activity seems to be ramping up, management teams are returning to more aggressive defense strategies.

(Poison pill defenses, for example, surged in late 2008 after several years in decline. According to FactSet Sharkrepellent, December saw 28 poison pill adoptions, the most in any month since 2001. Full-year 2008 adoptions of 127 poison pills were the most since 2002, FactSet says.)

M&A writer Avram Davis notes that lawyers often are the key players on defense. They encourage measures like language in bylaws to require advance notice of proposals for shareholder meetings, safeguards against activists’ calling their own meetings, and systems for tracking flow of confidential information to prevent its use against the company.

Another defensive strategy goes to the heart of investor relations:

Perhaps the easiest protection against hostile takeover attempts is among the least practiced – shareholder communications.

Joseph L. Johnson III, chair of the M&A and corporate governance practice at Goodwin & Procter LLP, tells M&A many companies have gotten out of the habit of meeting regularly with shareholders. Johnson (no relation) says this is dangerous, because you can be sure a hostile bidder will be actively reaching out to your investor base.

‘I’ve been telling people for years, it’s like you’re running for Congress,’ says Johnson. ‘You need to get out there and press the flesh.’

Staying in close touch with investors is essential. And going out to address concerns and explain the business strategy is the best way to communicate that management is serious about creating value.

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