The high-profile ExxonMobil shareholder vote in May sent shock waves through many of corporate America’s boardrooms. While there were various factors at play in the ExxonMobil scenario, the bottom line is this: A newly launched and virtually unknown hedge fund with a tiny stake in a massive global enterprise managed to leverage environmental and governance issues into winning three board seats at the annual meeting, displacing three incumbent directors, and is now in a position to influence the strategic direction of the company. Engine No. 1 LLC accomplished the unlikely feat of electing three nominees to ExxonMobil’s board by garnering broad support from an array of sources, notably profit-oriented activists and major institutional investors.
Overall, the 2021 proxy season saw a significant increase in shareholder support for EESG-related (i.e., relating to environmental, employee, social, and governance issues) proposals compared to 2020 and 2019. The ExxonMobil proxy contest is an example of the risks and dynamics at play in the current environment.