Hedge Funds, Management, and a Cooperative Approach

The WSJ has an article about a hedge fund started with capital from CEOs.  The fund is intended to have a "collaborative approach to management".  The fund, according to the article, "doesn’t plan on launching proxy fights or releasing shareholder letters".  The hope is that the approach will "open more doors than the combative stances and sharp missives favored by other activists."

The interesting thing is that the approach intimates that other hedge funds do not favor a "collaborative approach" with management.  One suspects that most if not all of them do.  The funds have ideas for the future direction of the company and want to see those ideas implemented.  There is no immediate benefit to conflict if the same result can be accomplished through collaboration.  As a result, funds, even those with reputations for short term investment horizons, typically approach management quietly to discuss and negotiate possible changes.  

Conflict does arise.  This occurs when collaboration doesn't work and management declines to sufficiently accept the advice provided by the hedge fund.  In those circumstances, additional pressure may be necessary, something that often requires a public campaign and can include a proxy contest.    

To the extent that this characterization is accurate, the difference between hedge funds that announce an intent to take a "collaborative approach to management" and funds that do not make this announcement is not the investment horizon or the desire to pressure management for change.  It is the willingness to relinquish up front tactics that are designed provide additional leverage in the event the negotiations break down.  

One suspects that management of most public companies doesn't want advice from outside players as to the direction of the company.  The advice is likely to be unwelcome whether the hedge fund is financed by CEOs or by other types of investors.  Funds may, therefore, discover that the unthreatening approach can in fact open more doors. But success is not based upon the number that open but the number that close and without the traditional means of applying pressure, funds may find the success rate not what they had hoped. 

J Robert Brown Jr.