Think of activist investors and you think of boardroom battles, tough words in the media and fights over stockpiles of cash. In Dear Chairman, Jeff Gramm provides historical context, charting the rise of shareholder activism.
The book is part history lecture and part loving ode to the great characters of activism. Alongside Gramm’s very readable narrative, letters from those featured are provided at the back of the book.
There’s a lot of information to take in, but persisting with the book is worthwhile. A wealth of anecdotes helps lift the more technical parts of the book. These range from the great salad oil swindle of the 1960s that almost saw the collapse of American Express, to the defensive tactics employed by corporations that led to the development of the poison pill.
The tales of individual battles are compelling, as is the shrewdness and daring of the protagonists. Stories about current titans like Carl Icahn and Daniel Loeb and those from an earlier era of whom many won’t have heard, show that activism is about more than numbers. The public battles and spats are a reminder of the all too personal nature driving some activism.
Above the personalities and folk-lore, however, the book charts the rise of the shareholder. At its outset, 100 years ago, private shareholding was growing but management were untouchable, and some enjoyed extravagant perks. Fast-forward to the present day and some of these debates, about aligning management and shareholder interests, about corporate governance, are still raging. It’s perhaps the clearest signal that activists will be with us for a long time to come.