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Book Review

Shareholder activist outlines plan for change

Email|Print| Text size + By Herbert Lash
Reuters / January 13, 2008

Robert Monks has been on a 25-year mission to make an obdurate corporate America mend its ways.

He has hounded Exxon Mobil to split the role of chairman and chief executive - to no avail. And Sears sued him for trying to get a list of shareholders in the early 1990s, when he was campaigning for a board seat.

Now, Monks lays out how to address corporate power in his book "Corpocracy," his ninth on the subject of corporate governance, which was published on his 74th birthday last month.

"It's to start the pendulum swinging," he said in an interview. "But I can't tell whether it will swing far enough."

To be clear, Monks does not oppose capitalism. He wants companies to succeed, just not by abusing their power. His fight is for efficiency and corporate behavior that the general population can live with.

In a recurring fantasy, he dreams the next president will sit down with cabinet members, spell out the duties of companies, and demand that government spending be used to enforce them.

And he would like to repeal a 1978 decision by the Supreme Court allowing corporations to make contributions to influence the political process.

According to Monks, CEOs should be more like Frank Blake of Home Depot, whose compensation is based on creating shareholder value. Blake's predecessor, Robert Nardelli, stepped down last January with a $210 million exit package despite poor stock performance during his six-year tenure.

Monks is an unlikely shareholder activist. Born into a Boston family that traces its line to before the Revolutionary War, he counts Fidelity's Edward C. "Ned" Johnson III as a friend. He took up corporate governance after stints as chairman of money manager Boston Co. and CEO of energy company C.H. Sprague & Co.

Over the years, he has had some victories and some memorable moments.

At Exxon Mobil's shareholder meeting in 2003, Monks told Lee Raymond that, as head of Exxon Mobil at the time, he enjoyed fewer constraints on the exercise of power than the leader of any G7 country.

And, in "A Traitor to His Class," a book about Monks, author Hilary Rosenberg recounted the effect of an ad Monks ran showing a silhouette of the Sears board under the words "non-performing assets."

A few years later, according to Rosenberg, Campbell Soup Co. CEO David Johnson displayed a copy of the ad during a presentation and said: "This is what keeps me honest. I would hate for this to happen to me."

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