Rolls-Royce, Volvo replace CEOs as investors gain clout

Ruth David and Benjamin Katz
Bloomberg News
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Europe’s activist spring may be here, with Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc and Volvo AB the latest to announce management changes after pressure from investors.

Shares of Rolls-Royce gained as much as 5.4 percent after the maker of aircraft engines named Warren East chief executive officer to replace John Rishton. Volvo surged 16 percent after it said Martin Lundstedt, the top executive at rival truckmaker Scania AB, will succeed Olof Persson as CEO.

The changes reflect in part the growing clout in Europe of institutional investors, who have agitated recently for changes in management or strategy at companies including German sporting goods maker Adidas AG and French media conglomerate Vivendi SA.

“Activists are targeting larger companies, they are gaining more board seats, influencing boards,” said Nick Lawson, head of event-driven strategies at Deutsche Bank AG. “With social media and the web, activists are now much more involved with other shareholders and the media.”

A New York-based investor, Sequoia Fund Inc., called for a shake-up at Rolls-Royce this year, describing the management and board of Britain’s No. 1 manufacturing company by market value as “stubborn and entrenched.” Other investors rallied around the issue, said John Hempton, chief investment officer of Bronte Capital, an Australian hedge fund that owns Rolls-Royce shares.

“I must have got three or four people who would have about $50 million to $100 million worth of shares prodding me,” said Hempton, who highlighted the Sequoia letter and his own concerns about Rolls-Royce last month on his widely followed blog. “I suspect they got their man, in that I think this retirement was unexpected and early.”

Rishton said in an interview Wednesday it was his decision to leave because he sought a change in lifestyle and he had notified London-based Rolls-Royce at the end of last year of his plan to step down.

Cevian Capital AB, the largest owner of Volvo stock, stepped up pressure on the company in February when co-founder Christer Gardell told a Swedish newspaper that developments at its truck operations were “not satisfactory.” Those comments coincided with the nomination of Eckhard Cordes, a Cevian partner and the former chief of Daimler AG’s truck operations, to Volvo’s board.

While operations at Gothenburg, Sweden-based Volvo improved in the first quarter, the company’s profit margin is still short of the target of at least 10 percent set out by Cevian.

Cevian, a Stockholm-based firm that seeks to buy undervalued stocks, also has made its influence felt at Bilfinger SE, the Mannheim, Germany-based engineering-services company. Bilfinger Chairman Bernhard Walter stepped down in November and Cevian won another seat on the supervisory board of the company, which cut its profit forecast three times in 2014.

Germany’s benchmark DAX index of the country’s 30 leading publicly traded companies is majority owned by foreign investors, according to Ernst & Young. The web of corporate cross-shareholdings, referred to as Germany Inc., which traditionally helped protect companies against influence from activist investors, has been in steady decline in Europe’s largest economy in the past decade as financial institutions including Deutsche Bank AG, Allianz SE and Munich Re whittled down their holdings.

In February Adidas said its board had started to search for a successor to Herbert Hainer, its CEO of about 14 years, after coming under pressure from shareholders amid lost market share to leader Nike Inc. and a 38 percent tumble in its stock price last year. In France, Vivendi this month agreed to pay an additional dividend of 2 euros a share in response to demands by Wall Street activist Peter Schoenfeld.

“We are in an environment that favors activism post the financial crisis,” said Deutsche Bank’s Lawson. “There is a greater focus among shareholders on long-term returns, corporate governance and strong management.”

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