Australian shareholders agreements - iba guide - jan 2013
AUSTRALIAN SHAREHOLDERS’ AGREEMENTS - AN INTERNATIONAL GUIDE
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This paper provides guidance on Australian shareholder agreements in a format adopted by the International Bar Association. Guides on shareholders’ agreements for other jurisdictions
COWELL CLARKE 2013. No part of this document may in any form or by any means be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted without prior written consent. This article is for general information only and cannot be relied upon as legal advice. Do not act on the basis of this article but seek specific advice from your legal adviser.
AUSTRALIAN SHAREHOLDERS’ AGREEMENTS – IBA GUIDE Brett Cowell and Peter Hagias Cowell Clarke Are shareholders’ agreements frequent in Australia?
Yes, shareholders’ agreements are quite often used in closely held private companies. The great majority of these companies are proprietary companies limited by shares, signified in the abbreviated form as Pty Ltd companies. Conversely, shareholders’ agreements are rarely used in companies with large shareholder bases.
What formalities must shareholders’ agreements comply with in Australia?
Shareholders’ agreements are not specifically regulated by statute law but rather, are manifestations of contract. Australia operates under a common law system and accordingly, shareholders’ agreements will be regulated in accordance with ordinary common law principles of contract law.
This means that shareholders’ agreements need not comply with any set form or procedure, provided that the shareholders’ agreement is drafted in a manner which ensures the agreement entered into is valid and enforceable at law.
Australia’s primary statute law governing companies is the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and Regulations made pursuant to that Act. Some provisions governing the operations of companies and shareholders set out in legislation are binding upon companies, their directors and shareholders and cannot be negated by contract.
Can shareholders’ agreements be brought to bear against third parties such as purchasers of shares or successors?
The common law doctrine of privity provides that a contract can neither confer rights nor impose obligations on any person except the parties to it. This means that under the laws of privity, a third party will not be subject to, nor can enforce, any rights or obligations under the shareholders’ agreement.
To address the consequences of privity, shareholders’ agreements will typically require that before the company can enter the name of a party into the company’s shareholders register (the process by which a party formally is recognised as a shareholder) in consequence of the issue or transfer of shares that party must accede to the shareholders’ agreement. This will typically be documented by a deed of accession. For this provision to be effective, either the company must be a party to the shareholders’ agreement or the shareholders must agree that they will ensure that the provision is observed, for example by agreeing that they will ensure that the directors do not register the name of a new shareholder in the register until a duly executed deed of accession has been received.
The obligation to ensure that a transferee accedes to the shareholders’ agreement may also be imposed on the transferor, so that the transferor must procure that the transferee execute a deed of accession before the share transfer is submitted for registration by the company.
The constitution of many unlisted companies will generally grant directors the discretion to refuse to register a transfer of shares. The non-provision of a required accession deed would be a good example of when directors would exercise that discretion.
Can a shareholders’ agreement regulate non-company contents?
Yes, given that shareholders’ agreements are creatures of contract, there is no limit on what contents they may regulate, provided that their terms are not void under common law contract principles or do not offend applicable legislative provisions.
The parties’ agreement to such terms may however prove practically difficult if the shareholders’ agreement seeks to regulate non-company affairs (which thereby extends the contractual relationship of shareholders to such affairs) of the shareholders.
Various principles of common law may render shareholders’ agreements as being void or voidable in certain circumstances. A clause which requires shareholders to act in breach of a law or in a manner which is contrary to public policy would be an example. Another example would be where a contract is entered into with a minor or with an adult who does not possess the requisite mental capacity to contract.
Most shareholders’ agreements contain a clause which has the effect of severing or omitting void or unenforceable terms from the agreement.
Are there limits on the term of shareholders’ agreements under the law of Australia?
No, there is no limit under the laws of Australia with respect to the duration of shareholders’ agreements.
However, the parties to the agreement may agree to a set term or to circumstances in which the agreement with automatically terminate. This is likely where a shareholders’ agreement is used in connection with a specific project of the company or pending a future event such as a defined exit, liquidity or other “realization” event.
It is advisable for a shareholders’ agreement to address the circumstances in which it may be terminated, either in entirety or with respect to a party that ceases to be a shareholder.
Are shareholders’ agreements related to actions by directors valid in Australia?
Directors have statutory duties under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and an equitable fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the company. As part of these duties, directors must cause the operations of the company to be conducted in a manner which is consistent with the statutory and fiduciary duties.
The general position at law is that a shareholders’ agreement cannot impose any condition or restriction on directors in a manner which fetters the directors’ proper exercise of the statutory and fiduciary duties which they owe to the company. There are several academic articles which suggest this to be the legal position in Australia but to date there have been no judicial determinations specifically on this point in Australia.
The English case of Russell v Northern Bank Development Corporation Ltd  1 WLR 588 held that a shareholders’ agreement which restricts what a company can as a body corporate do, may potentially fetter the company’s statutory powers. If it were to fetter such powers, it would be void. Whilst this case is not binding on Australian courts it may be followed.
Accordingly, care is required when drafting terms of shareholders’ agreements which have the potential to restrict the exercise of the company’s or directors’ common law and statutory obligations or duties.
Does the law of Australia permit restrictions on transfer of shares?
In some cases, yes. The constitution (previously called memorandum and articles of association) of a company, the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and other relevant legislative provisions set out many of the requirements of how a company operates. The constitutions of most privately held companies contain pre-emptive rights which require that a transferor offers shares for transfer to other shareholders before those shares can be offered to third parties. Frequently, those constitutions will also give the directors the right to refuse to register a share transfer, without them necessarily being required to give a reason for a refusal to register.
Pre-emptive rights provisions are far less common in public company constitutions and cannot be contained in the constitutions of Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) listed companies.
Shareholders’ agreements may also provide restrictions on the transfer of shares, with such restrictions typically expressed to take precedence over restrictions found in the company’s constitution.
What mechanisms does the law of Australia permit for regulating share transfers?
The constitution of a Pty Ltd company will typically contain terms setting out the procedures that regulate the transfer of shares. If there is also a shareholders’ agreement in place, the agreement may contain terms that modify the constitutional provisions or add additional terms with respect to the regulation of share transfers.
The constitutions of ASX listed companies and the ASX Listing Rules and associated provisions contain terms specifying the procedures for share transfers but these terms are not restrictive.
Common provisions regulating share transfers in Pty Ltd and other closely held companies are as follows. The provisions vary in detail from case to case. We have summarised the most usual forms:
• Pre-emptive rights: These require the transferor to offer all the shares which
the transferor proposes to sell, to the remaining shareholders of the company, pro-rata to their existing shareholdings, before the shares may be offered to non-shareholder third parties. The other shareholders may be entitled to offer to purchase more than their pro-rata allocations. The pre-emptive rights clause will usually set out a method for determining the value of the shares on offer. If the transferor’s shares are not purchased by the remaining shareholders within a set period of time, the transferor is usually free to sell his or her shares to non-shareholders – typically at a price no more favourable than that offered initially to the remaining shareholders.
• Drag-along, tag-along rights: Under the drag along option, a specified level or
number of majority shareholders can require the minority shareholder(s) to join in the sale of the shares in the company. The required percentage to constitute a ‘majority’ will be specified in the constitution or shareholders’ agreement. Under the tag along option, where a majority shareholder is, or shareholders are, selling their shares in the company, the minority shareholder or shareholders have the right to join the transaction and sell their minority stake. Under both options, the terms (including with respect to price and warranties etc.) of the sale of the minority shareholders’ stake will usually be said to be the same as for the majority selling shareholders.
• Right to refuse transfer: Under this provision, very often contained in the
constitutions of Pty Ltd companies, the Board has a right to refuse to register a transfer of shares at its absolute discretion, often without being required to provide any reasons for such refusal.
• Board consent to transfer: Similar to the Board’s right to refuse to register a
transfer, a transferor may be required to obtain the prior consent of the Board to transfer shares or to transfer shares to a particular person or category of persons.
• Required transfers: Certain specified events or circumstances may enable a
company to require the transfer of a person’s shares or may necessitate the transfer of shares. Examples of such triggers could include cessation of the shareholder’s employment or directorship with the company, the cessation of holding necessary qualifications or credentials such as the right to practise as a legal or medical practitioner, the death or bankruptcy of a shareholder or in the case of a shareholder committing a material breach of the shareholders’ agreement.
The acquisition of shares in an Australian company by a foreign party may be regulated or prevented by the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 (Cth) particularly in the case of certain national security matters or if the company holds certain types of land.
In Australia do bylaws tend to be tailor-drafted, or do they tend to use standard formats?
Company constitutions are usually drafted in relatively standard formats which vary somewhat depending upon the type of company. Australian company constitutions are not described as bylaws.
Where particular provisions are required, these may be drafted into the constitution or more commonly, are set out in a separate shareholders’ agreement.
Companies may opt to not have a separate documented constitution but instead may use what are known as the replaceable rules set out in the Corporations Act 2001(Cth), the equivalent of a constitution. This approach is not common.
What are the motives in Australia for executing shareholders’ agreements?
Shareholders’ agreements are used most often in closely held private companies where there tends to be a close correlation between the owners (shareholders) and management or the directors. In large, widely held companies many shareholders have a predominantly passive investment interest. In closely held private companies, there is a greater likelihood that the owners will wish to vary standard corporate governance practises and procedures to reflect the relationship between the shareholders and between each shareholder and the company and to document their agreements about particular ways in which the affairs of a company are to be governed.
Angel or private equity investors may not have majority shareholding positions but frequently want levels of control over the affairs of companies in which they invest that exceed what would otherwise be available to them as minority shareholders. They may also require terms to be agreed that relate to their exit from an investee company in due course.
The shareholders may also want agreement up front about how disputes or deadlocks in management are to be resolved so as to avoid or reduce the risk of litigation which is all too often very expensive, time consuming, reputationally costly and value destroying.
What contents tend to be included in shareholders’ agreements in Australia?
Typical contents in shareholders’ agreements include the following:
• Management and director structure: Regulation of the management and
director structure of the company, including the right of shareholders to appoint/remove nominee directors, when directors are deemed to be removed, the appointment and powers of the managing director and management.
• Shareholder and director meetings: Regulation of the conduct of shareholders
and directors meetings, including how and when meetings may be called, quorum requirements and specifying those resolutions that require unanimous director approval or those resolutions (eg. issuing new shares, incurring significant debt, acquiring or disposing of significant assets, and changing the business) that require consent by shareholders (as opposed to directors) by unanimous consent or a specified percentage of votes.
• Class rights: The rights (including veto rights where appropriate) attaching to
different classes of shares in the company.
• Accounts, funding and dividends: Provision of a system in which the
company’s budgets, accounts and business plan must be approved by shareholders, or require such content to be provided to shareholders with an opportunity to comment; clauses regulating the provision of (further) debt or equity funding by shareholders to the company; specification of a dividend or other profit distribution policy.
• Optional/deemed transfers, valuation, exit: Provision of a mechanism
(including restrictions on transfer) in which shares can be transferred and events which will deem a transfer of shares to have occurred or which may give a party a right to call for a transfer of shares and also a methodology or formula by which the value of the transferred shares is to be determined; drag along and tag along rights; provisions dealing with the timing of and methodology for an exit or “liquidity” event.
• Contracts with the company, non-compete and confidentiality: Stipulation of
the terms upon which shareholders or their nominees may be employed or have contractual dealings with the company; the provision of non-compete and confidentiality clauses with respect to shareholders and the company.
• Breach, dispute and deadlock resolution: Specification of breach of
agreement provisions and the consequences of a breach; stipulation of dispute resolution procedures between shareholders and provisions which deal with deadlocks that may occur at Board level or under the shareholders’ agreement or otherwise; forum and governing law provisions.
• Accession: Stipulation that before shares can be issued or transferred to a new
shareholder, that person must execute a deed of accession so as to become a party to and be bound by the shareholders’ agreement.
What determines the content included in shareholders’ agreements in Australia?
The parties to the shareholders’ agreement will determine the contents of what they believe should be regulated. What may be regulated will depend on various factors which may include the size and nature of the company, the maturity of the company, and the existing relationship between shareholders, directors and management of the company.
What are the most common types of clauses in shareholders’ agreements in Australia? What mechanisms does the law of Australia permit to ensure participation of minorities on the board of directors and its control?
Australian statutory and common law does not give minority shareholders rights to require board representation or a particular level of control of a company. By law, most matters to be voted on by shareholders, including the appointment or removal of directors, can be resolved by ordinary (simple majority) resolution, although a few matters (eg. amendment of the constitution) require a special (75%) resolution.
Despite this, the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and common law provides various protective mechanisms for minority shareholders. Directors have a fiduciary and statutory duty to act in the best interests of the company, or in other words, the shareholders as a whole. The Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) allows aggrieved minority shareholders to seek various remedies in circumstances where the company, the directors or the other shareholders have engaged in conduct which is oppressive to, or unfairly discriminatory or prejudicial against one or more shareholders of the company. Minority shareholders may have the right to require the company’s accounts to be audited and to have resolutions put to a meeting of shareholders. In some cases Australia’s corporate regulatory authority, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) may investigate and take action on breaches of the law by a company or its directors a following complaint by shareholders.
Is it possible in Australia to ensure minority shareholder control by means of a shareholders’ agreement?
Yes. See the answer to question 10. Depending on the situation of the company and the bargaining power of a minority investor as against other shareholders, the investor may be able to negotiate terms in a shareholders’ agreement which confer on the investor rights which exceed those it may otherwise have by reason of its minority shareholding position. For example, a shareholders’ agreement may stipulate that certain actions cannot be taken by the company or by the directors without the approval of specified (minority) shareholders or a specified number of shareholders or directors, which include or necessitate the approval of one or more minority shareholders.
What are the usual valuation mechanisms in connection with rights of first refusal or share transfer regulations?
Typical valuation methods include the following:
• Fixed price: Shareholders agree, either at the time they subscribe for the shares
or at a later date, on a fixed sale price per share.
• Assets basis: The value of the net tangible assets or perhaps including certain
intangible assets divided by the number of shares currently on issue.
• FME or DCF methods: Expected future maintainable earnings of the company
capitalised at an appropriate multiple or a discounted cash flow model.
• Expert valuation: The company’s internal or external accountant or auditor is to
perform the valuation or an external accountant or expert valuer is hired by the company or jointly by the transferee and transferor on an agreed set of instructions to value the company at a particular point in time.
• Board valuation: The directors of the company (being those directors that are
independent to the transaction at hand) value the shares at the time of transfer, having regard to all material facts which are relevant to determining the value of the company.
• Shotgun: A type of deadlock breaking clause where, for example, in the case of
a Board deadlock, an offeror shareholder can offer to sell its shares at its nominated price to the offeree shareholders. If the offerees don’t buy the offered shares at the offeror’s nominated price, the offeror can require the offerees to sell their shares to the offeror at that nominated price.
Is it permissible for a shareholders’ agreement clause to refer dispute resolution to courts other than those of Australia and/or under a law other than that of Australia?
Yes. Particularly where shareholders are based in different jurisdictions, there will frequently be negotiation regarding the governing law and forum provisions in a shareholders’ agreement. Australian courts will generally recognise and enforce choice of law and forum provisions that parties agree to. Rather than opt for the law and forum of one of the parties, the parties may agree that the shareholders’ agreement will be governed by the law of an independent jurisdiction and/or that disputes will be determined in an independent country. Having regard to the various potentially unattractive aspects of litigation, including enforcement of foreign judgments, the parties may choose alternative dispute resolution methods including expert determination, mediation or arbitration. Particularly in the case of arbitration, the parties may agree upon well accepted arbitration rules and a recognised arbitration forum independent of their respective jurisdictions.
Is it permissible for a shareholders’ agreement to include an arbitration clause with seat outside Australia and/or under a law other than that of Australia?
Brett Cowell is Cowell Clarke’s Chairman of Partners and heads the firm’s corporate group. Brett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via www.cowellclarke.com.au. Peter Hagias is a lawyer in Cowell Clarke’s corporate group and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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