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Is the Board to Blame?

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By: Kenneth A. Rosen, Esq., Philip J. Gross, Esq., Colleen M. Maker, Esq., Lowenstein Sandler, LLP

A bankruptcy trust for creditors (including former workers and trade vendors) who lost significant sums of money in the Toys “R” Us Inc. (TRU) bankruptcy sued former Chief Executive Officer David Brandon, several other directors and executives of TRU, and its former private equity owners.[i]The lawsuit accuses Brandon and other TRU executives and board members of, among other things, conspiring to keep suppliers in the dark about TRU’s real financial condition in the months preceding TRU’s collapse. As a result, post-bankruptcy suppliers and other creditors collectively lost $800 million, an additional $1.76 billion in pre-bankruptcy claims were left unpaid, and 31,000 employees lost their jobs, according to the complaint.

Colleen M. Maker

Colleen M. Maker

The complaint asserts that the company continued to purchase goods from suppliers on credit even after it became clear to directors that financing would evaporate because of a terrible fourth quarter. Between December 2017 and March 14, 2018, TRU supposedly placed $600 million of orders on credit, at the instruction of the company’s board, while assuring suppliers that TRU would emerge from bankruptcy.

Under Delaware law, the duties of directors of a solvent corporation run to the corporation, which is to be managed for the benefit of its shareholders. No fiduciary duties are owed to creditors of a solvent corporation. The general rule is that directors do not owe creditors duties beyond the relevant contractual terms.

When a corporation becomes insolvent, or approaches insolvency, directors of such a firm still do not owe any particular duties to creditors, but continue to owe fiduciary duties to the corporation for the benefit of all of its residual claimants, a category which includes creditors. They do not have a duty to shut down the insolvent firm and liquidate its assets for distribution to creditors – although they may make a business judgment decision that this is indeed the best route to maximize the firm’s value. If the board of an insolvent corporation, acting with due diligence and good faith, pursues a business strategy that it believes will increase the corporation’s value, but that also involves the incurrence of additional debt, it does not become a guarantor of that strategy’s success. That the strategy results in continued insolvency and an even more insolvent entity does not in itself give rise to a cause of action. Disinterested directors therefore continue to be substantially protected from ex post facto second-guessing by courts and other constituencies by the business judgment rule, even if the corporation is insolvent.

Decisions made by officers and directors of corporations typically have not subjected the individuals to personal liability. Even if an officer or director makes what turns out to be a bad business decision, such decision does not render the person liable.

The duty of care that an officer or director must exercise relates to the diligence that the person uses to make decisions. In order to fulfill this duty, it is strongly recommended that an officer or director follow several practices, including the following: (a) regularly attend board and committee meetings; (b) remain informed about the business and affairs of the corporation; (c) rely on information provided by others, such as reports, financial statements, and opinions; and (d) make inquiries about problems that may arise with respect to the corporation.

The responsibilities of the board are separate and distinct from those of management. The board does not manage the company. To inform its decisions, a board relies on materials prepared by management. The “duty of care” requires that directors make decisions with due deliberation. A “duty of care” is violated when a director has committed gross negligence by failing to inform him- or herself fully and in a deliberate manner.

Kenneth A. Rosen

Kenneth A. Rosen

Under the “business judgment rule,” a court will not second-guess a board’s decision if such decision was made (a) on an informed basis, (b) in good faith, and (c) in the honest belief that the action to be taken (or not taken) was in the best interest of the corporation. Directors are given the presumption that the business judgment rule has been satisfied unless the directors are interested/engaging in self-dealing, lack independence, are shown to not be acting in good faith, or reach their decision through a grossly negligent process. Thus, where a board (a) followed a reasonable process under the circumstances, (b) took into account the key relevant facts, and (c) made its decision in “good faith,” the board will generally be insulated from liability related to a particular decision or action it takes. Note that acting in “good faith” requires, among other things, that the board act in advancing the best interests of the corporation, without conflicts of interest, and without demonstrating a disregard for its duties such as by turning a blind eye to issues for which it is responsible.

Successful Chapter 11 reorganizations can be very difficult to achieve–especially in certain industries, such as retail. The time within which the debtor must turn things around has been shortened by the Bankruptcy Code’s deadline by which to assume or to reject unexpired leases. Further, in retail cases, secured lenders are very conscious of the required timing of a potential liquidation sale if a successful turnaround cannot be achieved. It is necessary to capture the right season for a sale. The fourth calendar quarter may be best. The third calendar quarter may be worst. Landlords become most aggressive in wanting their stores back in order to fill a “dark hole” for the critical fourth quarter–which means a lead time to retrofit the store for a new tenant. Despite the tools that the Bankruptcy Code provides, it is a race against the clock with impatient lenders and impatient landlords. We are not blaming them.

The creditors’ committee and the Bankruptcy Judge want to facilitate job preservation and also the retention of a customer, but those goals may not be achievable in the face of ongoing operating losses and in the face of lenders and landlords who have witnessed a relatively low success rate in retail Chapter 11 case.

Sears, Forever 21, and TRU are examples of recent “administratively insolvent” cases. In each of these recent cases, the company was left with insufficient funds to satisfy post-petition claims. So vendors that sustained losses prior to the petition date got burned a second time when they were unable to be fully paid on account of goods and services supplied to the debtor after the bankruptcy filing.

Allegations in the TRU complaint include that the board was inattentive to the likelihood of growing administrative insolvency and/or that the board knowingly permitted management to incur additional indebtedness–including continued purchase of new product–when it should not have done so. The TRU complaint also alleges that the board gave direction to obtain additional credit from vendors at a time when the board knew that such credit could not be repaid.

Should the board be liable, and if so, what should the plaintiffs be required to prove?

Philip J. Gross

Philip J. Gross

In each of the Sears, Forever 21, and TRU Chapter 11 cases mentioned above, there was a chief restructuring officer (CRO) retained by the debtor who was accountable to the board. CROs are engaged so that management can focus on turning around the business rather than on the day-to-day handling of the Chapter 11 case. CROs are presumed to know the rules of Chapter 11 – one of which is that a debtor must remain “administratively solvent,” i.e., maintain sufficient assets to satisfy all obligations incurred from and after the bankruptcy petition is filed. Counsel undoubtedly knows that.

The debtor is not expected to become profitable instantaneously on the petition date. But after a fair opportunity to prove that a turnaround is possible (i.e.,more likely than not to occur based upon current knowledge and reasonable assumptions), the debtor should not be falling increasingly behind on its administrative liabilities beyond the point of no return. That allegedly happened in the TRU case. We have no inside information. The Delaware Chancery Court in a recent case[ii]held that “directors cannot be held liable for continuing to operate an insolvent entity in the good faith belief that they may achieve profitability, even if their decisions ultimately lead to greater losses for creditors.”

Therefore, it would be bad precedent to hold the TRU board liable if the TRU board asked the right questions, received reasonable answers, and relied on management and/or the CRO without a basis on which to disbelieve or distrust management or the CRO. A board is not a guarantor of results promised by management. Board membership of distressed businesses should not be discouraged.

It is appropriate for the board to rely on a CRO and other restructuring professionals to keep the board informed of when the debtor is getting too far out on the limb. That is a principal function of the CRO. The CRO is the bankruptcy business/finance expert who is charged with overseeing the debtor’s business and financial affairs as they relate to compliance with the Bankruptcy Code and Bankruptcy Rules. The CRO is typically part of the interface between management and other professional advisors. It is the task of the CRO to rein in management and to alert the board if the debtor is making purchases beyond its reasonably likely ability to pay, but even in such situations, if making such purchases/incurring such debt is based on the good faith belief that incurrence of such debt in the short term will ultimately maximize value for all creditors (and potentially yield sufficient funds to satisfy such obligations), such actions, if properly informed, could be protected under the business judgment rule. It is the job of the CRO to ensure that unsecured creditors are not unfairly being taken advantage of–including in favor of a debtor’s secured creditors–in order to buy time to get a deal done that does not maximize value for the corporation and all of its creditors. At a minimum, the CRO must ensure that the board is aware when the CRO believes that additional debt is being incurred beyond a company’s ability to repay such debt.

A prudent board of a company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy should require of management, and especially of the CRO and other bankruptcy/restructuring professionals, regular reporting, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Accrued post-petition liabilities to vendors, employees, taxes, etc.
  2. Accrued post-petition professional fees (net of “carve outs” from the secured lenders)
  3. Outstanding purchase orders for goods not yet received
  4. Goods in transit/awaiting acceptance by the debtor
  5. Rolling payments to vendors versus accrual of additional liabilities–is the net number increasing?
  6. Projections of further expense reductions to improve cash flow
  7. Projections of income and expenses on an accrual basis, excluding Chapter 11-related expenses
  8. Projections of cash flow, including Chapter 11-related expenses
  9. Actual to projected results of cash flow and of operations
  10. YOY results
  11. Outstanding and future quarterly Chapter 11 operating fees owed to the United States Trustee (which fees are now assessed at 1% of quarterly disbursements for all amounts disbursed greater than $1 million (capped at $250,000 per quarter).
  12. Outstanding liabilities for “20 day” Section 503(b)(9) claims.

It is the job of the board to challenge the reasonableness of assumptions underlying projections. The board should obtain the input of the CRO and other bankruptcy professionals/advisors as to whether management is realistic or overly optimistic. The CRO and other bankruptcy professionals/advisors have the most credibility, on which the board should rely in this regard.

What are the limits to be established by the board on unpaid/unpayable administrative claims? It should not be zero. Businesses do not turn around immediately upon commencement of a Chapter 11 case. But the board should, after consultation with the CRO and management, inquire of management what will be the guardrails not to be breached absent extraordinary (positive) circumstances or a good faith belief that doing so will maximize the value of the corporation for the benefit of all stakeholders, including creditors.

Assuming that a board has abided by the protocol described above, it should be insulated from liability for administrative insolvency – unless the board knowingly or unreasonably permitted or directed unreasonable excesses. If the board asked the right questions, received the right reporting, and reasonably relied on the CRO and management, the board should not be liable. And, when it comes to “reasonableness,” the board should not be second-guessed by Monday morning quarterbacks unless the board’s reliance was reckless or evidenced self-dealing or other personal gain, the antithesis of maximizing value for the company and all of its residual stakeholders.

[i]See Bloomberg News, Toys ‘R’ Us Creditors Sue Directors and Private-Equity Owners, available athttps://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-13/toys-r-us-creditors-sue-directors-and-private-equity-owners.

[ii]Quadrant Structured Prods. Co. v. Vertin, 115 A.3d 535, 547 (Del. Ch. 2015).

For an excellent treatment of the topic, see:

Columbia Law School Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership, Fiduciary Duties of Corporate Directors in Uncertain Times, Ellen J. Odoner, Stephen A. Radin, Lyuba A. Goltser, and Andrew E. Blumberg (August 2017).

Thomson Reuters Practical Law Bankruptcy, Crucial Steps to Be Taken by the Board of Directors of Financially Troubled Companies (2016).

Westlaw Journal Bankruptcy, Nearing the End Zone: Developments in the ‘Zone of Insolvency’ (2016).

ABI Journal, The Fiduciary Duties of Directors of Troubled Companies, Marshall S. Huebner and Darren S. Klein (Feb. 2015).

In North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation, Inc. v. Gheewalla, the court summarized the duties of directors of solvent corporations. 930 A.2d 92, 99 (Del. 2007). These duties were further clarified and explained by the Delaware Chancery Court in Quadrant Structured Prods. Co. v. Vertin, 115 A.3d 535, 547 (Del. Ch. 2015).

Business

How to lead a high-performing team

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How to lead a high-performing team 1

By Matthew Emerson, Founder and Managing Director, Blackmore Four

When we think about a great team, the image we conjure up almost always includes a superstar leader.  A smiling Sir Alex Ferguson guiding Manchester United to countless domestic and European successes year after year. The conductor of an orchestra, drenched in sweat, turning to take rapturous applause from an appreciative audience.  The self-styled entrepreneur-turned-CEO who has steered their company’s share price, profit margins and brand recognition to levels of international envy.  Our bias to assign the leader credit or blame for successes or failures that are actually outcomes of a team effort is strong and widespread, and results in both positive and negative outcomes for individual leaders that often overlook any team-based root causes.

Clearly, some people are better at leading teams than others. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to try and identify the traits that distinguish effective leaders from those who consistently fail to get the best out of people they work with. Literally hundreds of research studies have attempted to see which traits predict leadership effectiveness. However, none have succeeded in identifying any set of universal traits that could reliably distinguish and predict effective leadership from the rest.

For one thing, research has shown that there is no one leadership style that works well across all situations.  A style that may be just what is needed when working with skilled and trusted colleagues to develop a team may fail badly when a newly-formed team encounters a challenging situation that requires a quick, decisive team response.

A second problem with leadership styles stems from our assumption that leader behaviour is the cause of member behaviour and team dynamics. In fact, a leader’s style may, in many circumstances, be as much a consequence of members’ behaviours as it is a cause of that behaviour.  For example, if a leader is charged with managing a team of subordinates who are both competent and cooperative, the leader is likely to be more effective responding with a considerate, participative leadership style.  However, if team members are obviously not capable in carrying out the work and, moreover, demonstrate aggression in their dealings with the leader, a much more structured, directive and autocratic style is likely to be exhibited, to varying degrees of effectiveness.  Excellent team leaders are aware of their natural styles—they know what they like to do, what they can do easily and well, and what they can accomplish.

Effective leadership

On the one hand, we tend to overattribute responsibility for collective outcomes to the team leader. Although that tendency is often exaggerated there is no doubt that what a team leader does (and doesn’t do) is highly consequential for team performance.  Instead of focusing on a leader’s generalised behaviour (style) and who they are (character, superhero), the focus should be shifted onto what it is they actually do (action).

Effective leaders focus on the four basic factors we discussed in the previous articles in this series, starting with a compelling direction and clear accountability.  The team need to know that they are a real, interdependent team and that normalised behaviours, high expectations and trusting relationships are agreed across the group.

Sometimes most of these conditions will already be in place when a team is formed and fine-tuning them will not pose much of a leadership challenge. Other times, when the focus has been on individual work not teamwork, it will take great effort to establish these four basic factors.

Behavioural leadership skills

Matthew Emerson

Matthew Emerson

Great team leaders do not rely on any single strategy for promoting high team performance. Instead, they work hard in getting all of the factors we have been discussing aligned and pulling in the same direction. However, it’s not sufficient for those who lead teams merely to know about the factors for high performance; they also need to know how to create and maintain those factors—in a word, they need to be skilled in leading teams.

Effective team leaders are skilled in executing actions that narrow the gap between what is happening in the group or its context, compared with what the leader believes should be happening.  They are also skilled at managing their emotional response, resisting the impulses of acting too quickly and dealing with one’s anxieties.

Effective leaders demonstrate their ability to tap into the collective resources and coach teams in order to exploit potential to the fullest extent.  Being able to exploit those special moments at the beginning, middle and end of task and team life cycles can prevent future breakdowns or factors that hinder high performance.

The ability to inspire others is another commonly identified, essential behavioural skill for leaders of high-performing teams.  The is no single best way to provide it, but the key is to identify which of your skills and styles can best be used to create in others the passion you feel for your work and then to hone and develop those resources as one core element in your personal repertoire of team leadership skills.

Leading high-performing teams

There is no way to “make” a team perform well, let alone sustain outstanding high performance.  Teams create their own destinies to a great extent.  After a team has launched itself on a particular path, its own actions create additional experiences which then guide members’ subsequent behaviour, which can set in motion either a cycle of ever-increasing competence and commitment or a downward spiral that ends in collective failure.

Once members have established their shared view of the world and settled into a set of behavioural routines, there is not a great deal that leaders can do to change the team’s basic direction or momentum. What leaders can do is make sure the team is set up right in the first place, action the four factors and then constantly hone and learn to develop a number of key skills specific to team leadership.

About Author:

Matthew Emerson is the Founder and Managing Director of Blackmore Four, an Essex based management consultancy working with leaders of ambitious businesses to achieve outstanding performance through periods of growth or significant change.

Starting his career at Ford Motor Company, Matthew has developed his expertise in Organisational Effectiveness in key senior HR, Organisational Development and Talent roles, predominantly in Financial Services (Credit Suisse, Barclays and DBS) and most recently as the Group Head of Talent and Performance at UBS AG.

Having worked in and across Asia for six years as well as having ‘global’ responsibility in a number of his roles, Matthew has an appreciation of international and multi-cultural working environments.  He also has a multi-sector perspective, having worked with organisations in Manufacturing, Healthcare, Education and Technology.

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Oil prices steady as lockdowns curb U.S. stimulus optimism

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Oil prices steady as lockdowns curb U.S. stimulus optimism 2

By Noah Browning

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices were steady on Monday as support from U.S. stimulus plans and jitters about supplies competed with worries about demand due to renewed lockdowns to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

Brent crude futures for March rose 7 cents, or 0.1%, to $55.48 a barrel by 1210 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude for March was up 5 cents, or 0.1%, at $52.32.

“Sentiment was buoyed by expectations for a blockbuster coronavirus relief package … (but) the tug of war between stimulus optimism and virus woes is set to continue,” said Stephen Brennock of broker PVM.

U.S. lawmakers are set to lock horns over the size of a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package proposed by new President Joe Biden, financial stimulus that would support the economy and fuel demand.

European nations, major consumers, have imposed tough restrictions to halt the spread of the virus, while China reported a rise in new COVID-19 cases, casting a pall over demand prospects in the world’s largest energy consumer.

Barclays raised its 2021 oil price forecasts, but said rising cases in China could contribute to near-term pullbacks.

“Even though the pandemic is not yet slowing down, oil prices have good reasons to start the week with gains,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen from Rystad Energy.

Supply concerns have offered some support. Indonesia said its coast guard seized an Iranian-flagged tanker over suspected illegal fuel transfers, raising the prospect of more tensions in the oil-exporting Gulf.

“A development that always benefits prices is the market turbulence that conflicts create,” Tonhaugen added.

Libyan oil guards halted exports from several main ports in a pay dispute on Monday.

Output from Kazakhstan’s giant Tengiz field was disrupted by a power outage on Jan. 17.

(Editing by David Goodman and Edmund Blair)

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Dollar steadies; euro hurt by vaccine delays and German business morale slump

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Dollar steadies; euro hurt by vaccine delays and German business morale slump 3

By Elizabeth Howcroft

LONDON (Reuters) – The dollar steadied, the euro slipped and riskier currencies remained strong on Monday, as currency markets were torn between optimism about U.S. stimulus plans, and the reality of slow vaccine rollout and the economic impact of lockdowns in Europe.

Market sentiment had turned more cautious at the end of last week as European economic data showed that lockdown restrictions to limit the spread of the virus hurt business activity, dragging stocks lower.

The safe-haven dollar declined gradually overnight, and riskier currencies strengthened. It then recovered some losses after European markets opened, and was at 90.224 against a basket of currencies at 1152 GMT, flat on the day.

On one hand, market sentiment is supported by hopes for President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus plans, as well as the expectation that central banks will continue to provide liquidity.

But, in Europe, the extent of the risk appetite was limited by a lack of progress in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine as well the economic impact of lockdown measures.

German business morale slumped to a six-month low in January, surprising market participants who had expected the survey to show a rise.

“It’s very much a case of hopes for the future against the reality of the first quarter of this year which is going to still prove to be fairly troubled,” said Jeremy Stretch, head of G10 FX strategy at CIBC Capital Markets.

“For now at least, the optimism that we’re hoping for has been somewhat delayed and that has taken a little bit of steam out of the euro and just put a little bit of support back in the dollar but ultimately I think it is still a case of those high-beta commodity currencies, reflation currencies, will continue to perform well,” he said.

Analysts expect a broad dollar decline during 2021. The net speculative short position on the dollar grew to its largest in ten years in the week to Jan. 19, according to weekly futures data from CFTC released on Friday.

The U.S. Federal Reserve meets on Wednesday and Fed Chair Jerome Powell is expected to signal that he has no plans to wind back the Fed’s massive stimulus any time soon – news which could push the dollar down further.

“The process of tapering QE is likely to be a gradual process which could last throughout 2022, and then potentially be followed by the first rate hikes later in 2023,” wrote MUFG currency analyst Lee Hardman.

“In these circumstances, we continue to believe that it is premature to expect the US dollar to rebound now in anticipation of policy tightening ahead, and still see scope for further weakness this year,” he said.

The euro was down around 0.1% against the dollar, at $1.2153 at 1207 GMT. At the European Central Bank meeting last week, President Christine Lagarde said the bank was closely watching the euro. The euro surged 9% last year versus the dollar and reached new two and a half year highs earlier in January.

But despite this verbal intervention, traders remain bullish on the euro, expecting the bar for a rate cut to be high.

Elsewhere, the Australian dollar, which is seen as a liquid proxy for risk, was up 0.2% at 0.7726 versus the U.S. dollar at 1208 GMT.

The New Zealand dollar was up 0.5%, while the commodity-driven Norwegian crown was up 0.2% the euro.

The safe-haven Japanese yen was flat on the day at 103.815 versus the U.S. dollar.

Graphic: USD, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/qmypmyjdxpr/USD.png

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft, editing by Ed Osmond and Chizu Nomiyama)

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