By Simon Wong
Why do you need a shareholders’ agreement?
When friends or family members come together to form a company, more often than not, they will not consider the need for a shareholders’ agreement as they tend to rely on mutual trust, respect and confidence. Of course, this generally works perfectly when the business is doing well and profitable, and while the shareholders are receiving their expected return on investment. But what if things turn sour? Whether the business is not doing well or trust and confidence morph into distrust and suspicion, what can shareholders do? In circumstances like these, the shareholders’ agreement comes into play. A well drafted shareholders’ agreement should be able to offer a solution to the parties in most cases. As with any other agreement such as those for sale and purchase, and loan transactions, the importance of a shareholders’ agreement is to safeguard interests of the shareholders and if disputes arise between the parties, there is an agreement they can fall back on setting out clearly what the parties can or cannot do, and shall or shall not do.
What is a shareholders’ agreement?
Shareholders’ agreement is an essential agreement between the shareholders of a company and the company itself. It can be between the company and all or just some of the shareholders; for instance, a company with different classes of shares and holders of different classes of shares might prefer to separately enter into a shareholders’ agreement with the company instead of with holders of all classes of shares. A shareholders' agreement is used to govern the company's management and operation and sets out all the rights and obligations between the shareholders and the company. A shareholders’ agreement is particularly important for third party investors investing in an existing company or business or when unrelated parties come together to form a new company.
What terms are to be included in a shareholders’ agreement differ according to the parties’ needs and bargaining power and/or the particular type of business. Still, a typical shareholders’ agreement normally consists of the following terms:
If investments are to be made in stages, the shareholders’ agreement would normally include the timetable for capital contribution, share subscription by the shareholders, shareholding structure and other typical clauses in a share subscription agreement.
Where a company has only two shareholders, one of them holds 51% (majority shareholder) and the other one holds 49% (minority shareholder) of the issued shares, the minority shareholder typically has no control over how the company will be managed and operated as the minority shareholder will be out-voted by the majority shareholder at general meetings, assuming all decisions only require a simple majority vote, i.e., >50%, of the shareholders to pass. However, according to the Companies Ordinance (Cap.622, Laws of Hong Kong), certain decisions of a company are required to be passed by special resolutions, i.e., passed by at least 75% of the voting shares. These decisions include the alteration of the articles of association, change of the company’s name, reduction in the share capital of the company, etc., meaning that the majority shareholder in the above case cannot simply pass a resolution by itself to alter the articles of association of the company. In addition to those decisions specified in the Companies Ordinance that must be approved by special resolutions, to protect their interests, the minority shareholder will negotiate with the majority shareholder for other matters to be passed by special resolutions which are not otherwise required so by law. Common examples include capital expenditure above a certain amount, disposal of material assets, change in the company’s principal business, further financing through equity or borrowings or change in dividend policy, etc.
Often when an investor invests in a business as a minority shareholder, the investor is in fact investing in the experience, expertise and knowledge in the industry and business operation of the company’s management team who are normally the majority or founding shareholders of the company. In case the majority shareholders decide to divest and sell their shares, the investor could also consider selling their shares as there may be uncertainty as to the management, operation and profitability of the business once the company changes hands. Hence, the investor will almost inevitably request a “tag-along right” to be incorporated in the shareholders’ agreement, giving the investor the right but not the obligation to co-sell its shares on the same terms to the prospective buyer of the majority stake.
A minority investor would normally request a non-competition undertaking from the company and the majority shareholders to oblige them not to engage in any business operations or investment in other businesses that are similar to or in direct competition with that of the company. This is to avoid any negative impact on the profitability of the company.
Not only do minority shareholders need a shareholders’ agreement to protect their interests, majority shareholders also have certain interests that require safeguarding. A potential nightmare for a majority shareholder could be when they have found a prospective buyer willing to buy-out 100% of the company but the minority shareholder refuses to sell their shares. What happens next is the entire deal falls through. To avoid this, the shareholders’ agreement should include a clause whereby if the majority shareholder decides to sell all of their shares in the company to a third-party buyer, they will have the right (but not the obligation) to request the minority shareholder(s) to also sell their shares in the company on the same terms. Once requested by the majority shareholder, the minority shareholder(s) will be obligated to sell their shares. Contrary to the tag-along right afforded to minority shareholders, such a right is known as the “drag-along right” of the majority shareholder.
In addition, a majority shareholder would not want any information relating to the business operations, prospects, customers, suppliers, financial information or trade secrets being disclosed to any third party, especially competitors, or shares in the company sold to competitors. Therefore, specific clauses that deal with the use and disclosure of confidential information and on the restrictions on the transfer of shares will need to be incorporated in the shareholders’ agreement to address the majority shareholder’s concerns.
Suppose every shareholder in a company holds the same percentage of shares, for example, there are five shareholders each holding 20%. In this case, where there is no majority shareholder, would any of the majority or minority protection provisions mentioned above still apply? If two or more shareholders join hands and outnumber the rest in terms of shareholdings, arguably there will be a (collective) majority camp against the minority shareholders. What if none of the shareholders can agree on an issue? Circumstances like this is commonly known as a “deadlock” situation, where things come to a standstill and cannot move forward. If a deadlock situation continues, it could seriously affect the continued operation of the business. A well-drafted shareholders’ agreement should have specific provisions incorporated to cater for deadlocks and provide mechanisms to resolve issues.
Shareholders’ agreement vs Articles of Association
Whether the terms of a shareholders’ agreement will be reflected in the company’s articles of association very much depends on the parties’ wishes. In Hong Kong, the articles of association of a company are public documents and can be searched and obtained for a fee by anyone. If the articles of association of a company is amended to incorporate and reflect terms of the shareholders’ agreement, all such terms incorporated in the articles of association will also become public information. Hence, whether the terms of the shareholders’ agreement will be incorporated in the articles of association and how much of it should be incorporated becomes another area of negotiation between the shareholders and the company. Suppose certain terms of the shareholders’ agreement differ from the articles of association, such as the quorum for a board meeting, and the parties decide not to amend the articles of association to reflect the same, should the shareholders comply with the articles of association or the shareholders’ agreement? To avoid this embarrassing situation, it is always good practice to include a clause in the shareholders’ agreement to the effect that if there is any contradiction or discrepancy between the shareholders’ agreement and the articles of association, the terms of the shareholders’ agreement will prevail.
If you wish to find out more about whether you need a shareholders’ agreement for your company, how to protect your interests, and what terms should be included in your shareholders’ agreement, please feel free to speak to members of our corporate and commercial team.