Leave it to the Americans to besiege European companies in August, when the entire continent is on holiday. It emerged this month that Corvex Management, an American hedge fund, had built up a $400m position in Danone, a French food giant. AkzoNobel, a Dutch paints-and-chemicals firm which has been under heavy fire from Elliott Advisors, a subsidiary of another American activist fund, agreed to appoint three new directors to its board. An even bigger skirmish is under way in Switzerland, where Third Point, an American fund run by Daniel Loeb, is seeking to shake up Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company. Ulf Mark Schneider, Nestlé’s new boss, is under pressure to present bold plans to investors in September.
Such tussles used to be relatively rare in Europe. But shareholder activism is on the rise, with restive investors demanding corporate overhauls. Armand Grumberg, a mergers lawyer in Paris, last year counted 70 such campaigns in continental Europe. He expects this year to be even livelier. “It is the new normal,” he says.
The surge in activism has several causes. As American activist funds jostle to find targets at home, some are seeking less well-trodden hunting grounds abroad. Relatively cheap European firms are tempting prey. Many Americans also see continental models of corporate governance as ripe for disruption. Americans (and Britons) think that boards must prioritise shareholders’ interests; Europeans, backed by courts, insist boards should also take the interests of staff, creditors and suppliers into account.