Mark van Baal – shareholder activist

Our goal is to get companies such as Shell moving trough shareholder pressure

Text; Roeland Muskens Photo: Anke Teunissen

“I come from the business world and only became a journalist later in my career. That career switch was in part because I wanted to contribute to sustainability. I thought that by writing about sustainability in companies I could steer things in the right direction.” I wrote about Shell among others: ‘You have the brains and the billions to change the world. Do that, or otherwise Shell will become the Kodak of the 21st century. You’ll miss the transition.’ I was sitting at home and anticipated that Shell would be bankrupt within 20 years, and that I could go on Nieuwsuur and explain how that happened. My wife said: ‘Men that say: ‘I told you so’ aren’t sexy. If you’re that convinced that something needs to change, then go for it.’ I said: ‘Shell doesn’t listen to journalists, NGO’s, or governments. Shell only listen’s to shareholders.’ And that’s when the light in my head turned on.

“My example was the role of the Children investment Fund in ABN-AMRO. The Children Investment Fund is a sweet name for a ruthless investor. This fund had 1% of the ABN-AMRO shares, and as such they wrote a letter in which they demanded ABN-AMRO would split up. Then CEO Rijkman Groenink was opposed to the idea, but the 1% shares gave the fund the right to put proposals on the agenda. The pressure was large enough that it led to a dramatic change of course at the bank.

“What they could do, I could do just as well, I thought.”

“Our goal is to get Shell moving through shareholder pressure. We initially demanded Shell would spend its profits on developing sustainable energy sources. But these days Follow-this focuses on getting Shell to bind itself to the Paris Climate accords (which means at least a 65% reduction of emissions by 2050, RM). That might seem like a less radical demand than we started with, but its a ‘trojan horse’: If they want to comply with the Paris accords they will have to make some fundamental changes to their business-model, they way they earn their profits.”

“We’ve managed to get some major investors behind our resolution. In total we have the support of 6.4% of the shareholders. That’s still a minority, but big enough that Shell is forced to respond. Two years ago Van Beurden announced that Shell wants to substantially lower the CO2 emissions. And for the first time they’re not just talking about the shell factories, but also the emissions of companies and families who buy Shell products. Shell was the first oil company which made this move. Since this year were also active within BP and Equinox (Norwegian energy giant, RM); There the support for our resolutions, similar to the one we have at Shell, are respectively 8,4 and 12%, but these companies won’t commit as much as Shell.

We came a long way since that night at the kitchen table. My major lesson is: if you have a good idea you need to go for it. You should go watch ‘how to start a movement’ on youtube. It starts with one person who is willing to take the risk of being ridiculed, and how important the first few followers are. At first it was just me across from the shareholders. I was ready to be laughed at. But a small group of people had supported me by buying shares, without knowing whether my action would have any chance of success. Later we actively went looking for ten people who would each be willing to invest half a million. Thanks to these people, Duncan Stutterheim founder of the company ID&T was one of them, we passed the barrier to be able to put a resolution on the agenda.

“These days they take us seriously. Pension funds are our natural allies. Their focus is also on, which is in their nature, the long term. They are sensitive for the argument that Shell needs to make the transition now to still be relevant in 20 or 30 years.”

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