Controlling shareholders and managers of family-owned businesses often direct the use of company funds and other resources to provide employment and other benefits to non-shareholder family members. In a business that is wholly-owned by close family members, there may be little concern that other family member shareholders will complain about the use of such resources, as long as there is disclosure and perceived fairness concerning the use of company funds and access to employment opportunities. The risk of a potential claim for breach of fiduciary duty or minority shareholder oppression may increase, however, when non-family members are admitted into the ownership structure. At that point, historic and perhaps informal practices concerning family member involvement in, and benefits from, the company may not be acceptable to a new owner. The controlling family member owners must therefore be careful to follow good corporate governance practices when making decisions on the company’s behalf. Continue Reading Watch Out For Minority Shareholder Oppression Claims After Admitting Non-Family Shareholders To The Family-Owned Business
In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that directors of a corporation owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation itself, and not to the stockholders of the corporation (as is the case in Delaware, among other states). In Int’l Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Loc. No. 129 Benefit Fund v. Tucci, SJC-12137 (Mass. Mar. 6, 2017), the Court ruled that the directors of EMC Corporation did not breach their fiduciary duties to the corporation when they approved the sale of EMC as a whole, versus selling off the constituent operations individually, which might have brought a higher price. The Court relied on the plain language of M.G.L ch. 156D, Section 8.30, which provides that a director shall discharge his duties “in a manner the director reasonably believes to be in the best interests of the corporation.”
Directors of all corporations – including family owned businesses – owe a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the company. This duty requires a director to put the interests of the company ahead of his or her personal interest and not to divert corporate opportunities or assets for his or her own benefit. Many state statutes further address potential conflicts of interest and allow for such conflicting interest transactions as long as the director makes prior disclosure and obtains the approval of all non-interested directors or shareholders before embarking on the transaction. This statutory process protects the corporation from the potential damage of a self-interested deal by one or more directors. It also provides cover for the director when acting for his or her own benefit as long as the director makes the proper prior disclosures and receives the needed approval.
Family owned corporations are subject to the same statutory requirements regarding entity governance as non-family owned businesses. Thus, in order to fully comply with the applicable statute for the state where the business is incorporated, a family business should pay attention to all provisions that require annual or other ongoing action by the company. These include:
- Holding annual shareholder meetings
- Holding formal elections of directors at shareholder meetings,
- Documenting actions taken by the unanimous consent of the directors without a meeting
- Maintaining complete records of the company’s operations and finances
Many companies also have detailed provisions in their by-laws that spell out additional duties of directors and officers, along with shareholders’ rights and responsibilities.