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May 28, 2021

The week in GRC: Energy companies face pressure on climate and study finds spike in diverse board appointments

This week’s governance, compliance and risk-management stories from around the web

Reuters reported that Goldman Sachs said media lawyer Kimberley Harris would become its newest board member, a move that makes the bank’s board of directors nearly 50 percent composed of women. Harris is NBCUniversal Media’s general counsel and an executive vice president at Comcast Corporation. Her appointment to the Goldman Sachs board comes as banks face growing calls to add diverse and female candidates to their top rungs of leadership.

Goldman Sachs has publicly set specific internal targets aimed at hiring and promoting more women into its senior ranks. The company has said that, by 2025, it wants 40 percent of its vice presidents to be female.

CNN reported that dozens of people took to Twitter to say they received emails with a racial slur from a Walmart account after someone created fake accounts with their addresses on the company’s site. An auto-generated ‘Welcome to Walmart’ email, which was sent to the accounts after they were signed up for a Walmart shopping account, contained the slur.

A Walmart spokesperson said in a statement that ‘an external bad actor’ created fake user accounts ‘with obvious intent to offend our customers. We were shocked and appalled to see these offensive and unacceptable emails. We’re looking into our sign-up process to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.’

ISS Corporate Solutions released an analysis showing a nearly 200 percent increase in the count of newly appointed S&P 500 board members who are black. The spike follows widespread racial justice protests last summer that prompted many US corporate leaders to pledge to increase diversity among directors and executives.

According to the analysis, which covers the period from July 1, 2020 to May 19, 2021, almost a third (32 percent) of all newly appointed directors were black while just over half (54 percent) were white. By comparison, those figures stood at 11 percent and 74 percent, respectively, for the period between July 1, 2019 and May 19, 2020, and at 12 percent and 77 percent, respectively, for the period between July 1, 2018 and May 19, 2019.

Marija Kramer, head of ISS Corporate Solutions, said: ‘The needle has clearly moved as companies respond to the chorus of investors and other stakeholders who since last summer have called for greater racial and ethnic diversity within corporate boardrooms.’

– According to The Wall Street Journal, more diverse executives are getting to pick and choose their finance jobs, as companies look to boost diversity in their leadership teams amid heightened public awareness about racial inequality. Although those from minorities already in the executive ranks are seeing more opportunities, it can be difficult for those without C-suite experience to break in, recruiters and finance professionals say.

Many companies and boards now insist on being presented with a diverse slate of candidates when filling C-suite positions and are tweaking how they assess candidates. They are also taking steps to better retain and promote diverse internal talent.

CNN reported that a court in the Netherlands ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must dramatically cut its carbon emissions in a landmark climate decision. The company must reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 from 2019 levels, according to the judgment. That includes emissions from its own operations and from the energy products it sells. It is the first time a court has ruled a company needs to reduce its emissions in line with global climate goals, according to Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

The company announced plans in September to become a net-zero emissions company by 2050, a target that includes emissions from its products. It is currently targeting a 20 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2030, and 45 percent by 2035.

A Shell spokesperson said: ‘We are investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, including electric-vehicle charging, hydrogen, renewables and biofuels. We want to grow demand for these products and scale up our new energy businesses even more quickly. We will continue to focus on these efforts and fully expect to appeal today’s disappointing court decision.’

– According to the WSJ, bond market investors appear to be juggling their holdings amid developments affecting how energy companies manage climate risks. A Dutch court ruled on Wednesday that Royal Dutch Shell must cut its emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Shell said it plans to appeal. On the same day, ExxonMobil shareholders elected board members nominated by an activist investor that wants the company to prepare for a post-fossil fuel world. The decisions highlight forces already creating new dynamics in how investors look at fossil fuel companies.

The change is nascent and most noticeable among European oil companies, whose bonds have lost value despite rising crude prices. In addition to pressure from shareholders and activists, debt investors say they are trying to get ahead of possible moves by the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and other central banks to favor sustainable companies in their bond-buying programs.

The Guardian reported that a majority of Chevron shareholders rebelled against the company’s board by voting 61 percent in favor of a proposal from Follow This asking the company to cut its carbon emissions. Mark van Baal, who founded Follow This, said shareholder revolts mark an investor ‘paradigm shift’ and a ‘victory in the fight against climate change.’

– Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced during the company’s AGM that he will officially step down from his role as CEO on July 5, CNN reported. Bezos will hand the reins to Andy Jassy, who runs Amazon Web Services, after a nearly three-decade run leading the internet company. Bezos will become Amazon’s executive chair. The company first announced the leadership change as part of its February earnings report. The timing is ‘sentimental,’ Bezos said: July 5 is the date Amazon was incorporated in 1994.

CNBC reported that, according to chair and CEO Patrick Pouyanné, investors in French oil company Total backed its strategy at its AGM, including plans to tackle the climate crisis. Total had sought support from investors with a motion on its environmental goals. The motion was backed by 91.88 percent of shareholders, the company said. The level of support for its climate strategy is seen as an important indicator, given a growing minority of investors at other major oil companies have defied management to demand much faster climate action.

– The WSJ said that, according to people familiar with the matter, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates are discussing adding a board and bringing in outside directors to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. French Gates has pushed for governance changes in the wake of the couple’s divorce filing to ensure the future stability of the foundation, some of the people said.

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, said he told employees he is discussing with Gates and French Gates possible steps to ‘strengthen the long-term sustainability and stability of the foundation given the co-chairs’ divorce.’

‘No decisions have been made,’ Suzman said in a statement. ‘Bill and Melinda have reaffirmed their commitment to the foundation and continue to work together on behalf of our mission. These discussions are part of their prudent planning for the future.’

Ben Maiden

Ben Maiden is the editor-at-large of Governance Intelligence, an IR Media publication, having joined the company in December 2016. He is based in New York. Ben was previously managing editor of Compliance Reporter, covering regulatory and compliance...