Good Corporate Governance Starts With the Articles and Bylaws

November 14th, 2016

governance-11-14-16.pngJust as a good diet and regular exercise contribute to a healthy lifestyle, good corporate governance and board oversight often serve as the foundation for the health and stability of any corporate organization. Corporate governance is often a difficult concept to nail down. In the highly regulated banking industry, the importance of good corporate governance practices is significantly amplified due to the additional layer of regulatory risk that may not affect businesses in other industries.

Although good corporate governance is often associated with maintaining certain policies and procedures, such as guidelines, codes of conduct, committee charters, shareholder agreements and intercompany and tax sharing agreements, we routinely encounter financial institutions that ignore or overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of corporate governance: the articles of incorporation and bylaws. In fact, we experience many situations in which financial institutions have articles and bylaws that are significantly outdated and have not been revised to comply with current laws, regulations and other corporate best practices. Failure to keep these governing documents current can not only raises legal and regulatory concerns, but oftentimes compromises the ability of the management team to protect and preserve the interests of its shareholders.

A comprehensive review of the articles and bylaws is recommended, particularly if you have not conducted such a review in the past. Set forth below is a summary of certain terms and provisions that may be of particular interest to your management and board of directors.

Compliance With State Corporate Laws
State corporate laws provide the basic foundation for the conduct of business of most banks and bank holding companies. Over time, these state corporate laws are revised or replaced with more modern corporate statutes. Although the corporate laws may evolve over time, many financial institutions fail to adapt their articles and bylaws to conform to these changes. In many cases, we encounter articles and bylaws that reference outdated and repealed laws and statutes that could lead to questionable legal interpretations and uncertainty in many critical situations.

Limitation of Personal Liability and Indemnification of Directors and Officers
Most state corporate laws have provisions that permit a corporation to limit the personal liability of, and/or provide indemnification to, directors and officers pursuant to provisions in its articles or bylaws. Typically, the ability to limit liability and provide indemnification to directors and officers is eliminated in certain situations such as a breach of fiduciary duty or intentional misconduct. However, we routinely experience situations in which the limitation of liability and indemnification are either not addressed by the articles or bylaws or contain provisions that may not fully protect the interests of the management team.

Electronic Communications
As technology continues to evolve, many state corporate statutes have been revised to permit certain shareholder and director communications, such as notices of shareholder and director meetings, to be delivered in electronic format. Despite these statutory revisions, if your institution’s articles and bylaws require physical delivery of these notices, you might not be able to take advantage of these newer and less costly forms of communication.

Uncertificated Shares
As financial institutions continue to consolidate and increase their shareholder base, the use of third-party transfer agents is becoming more prevalent for the management of stock transfer records. Most transfer agents have implemented uncertificated book-entry systems as a means of recording stock ownership, which eliminates the need for physical stock certificates. However, it is not uncommon for the articles and bylaws to specifically require the issuance of physical stock certificates to their shareholders. Obviously, these provisions must be revised before implementing an uncertificated stock program.

In addition to the specific matters addressed above, some other important areas to consider when reviewing your articles and bylaws include the shareholders’ ability to call special meetings, the process for including shareholder proposals at annual or special meetings, the implementation of a classified board of directors, the process for the removal of directors, mandatory retirement age for directors, shareholder vote by written consent and a supermajority vote standard for certain article and bylaw amendments, such as limitation of liability and indemnification.

A review of your institution’s articles and bylaws is only one component of the broader corporate governance umbrella, but it is one of the more important and fundamental aspects of your board’s corporate governance responsibilities. Routine maintenance of these fundamental corporate documents will be a good start towards enhancing your institution’s overall corporate governance structure.

lharrison

Lowell Harrison is a founding partner of Fenimore, Kay, Harrison & Ford, one of the premier community banking law firms in the U.S.  Mr. Harrison’s practice focuses on the corporate and regulatory representation of commercial banks, thrifts, holding companies and other financial institutions.