Amid a host of recently past and upcoming annual shareholder meetings, management and the boards of directors of the 15 or so publicly traded home building companies face growing pressure from shareowners on two issues: executive compensation and climate change.
While attention among activist stakeholders gravitates mostly to "named executive" pay and bonus packages, a number of home builders, namely Lennar, Ryland, Standard Pacific, and Toll Brothers, are the target of the Investor Network on Climate Risk , a group that's pushing companies to make reducing greenhouse gas emissions a more transparent strategic priority.
Shareholders of both Toll Brothers and Lennar, whose annual meetings took place March 17 and April 14, respectively, voted down proposals that called for "quantitative goals, based on available technologies, for reducing total greenhouse gas from the company's products and operations."
Ryland shareholders meet April 28, and Standard Pacific's annual meeting is set for May 12 at company headquarters in Irvine, Calif. The INCR, whose interests in home building companies are represented by shareholder groups such as the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Officer of the Comptroller of New York City, has submitted shareholder proposals that aim to get home building companies to set measurable goals and account for performance on those goals to shareholders each year.
Here's a statement from a March 5 memorandum from the Nathan Cummings Foundation's director of shareholder activities, Laura Shaffer:
"Over the last two years, there has been substantial movement among some companies in the homebuilding industry towards both increased disclosure and concrete action to reduce GHG emissions. ... NVR is building all new homes to Energy Star standards, KB Home is building all new homes in new communities to Energy Star standards, and Pulte is focusing on increasing the energy efficiency of the homes it builds while simultaneously looking to reduce operational GHG emissions. Meanwhile, companies like Lennar, Ryland, Standard Pacific and Toll Brothers are falling even farther behind. None of these companies appear to be anywhere near the completion of a GHG emissions assessment, let along the establishment of a GHG emissions baseline covering operations, electricity usage and products as recommended."
The four companies assert that their building and corporate operations are already making strides in efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. However, nonetheless, they are recommending that shareholders vote down these proposals because complying with them would take away their ability to compete in a ferociously competitive arena with other home builders.
"We are pro-green, and we do everything we can in our homes, communities, and our company to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Toll Brothers executive vice president and CFO Joel Rassman. "Fact is, our customers tell us a lot of what they want in their homes, and while we encourage them toward greener choices, we cannot comply with what we can't control."
Rassman noted that Toll Brothers shareholders defeated the proposal, with 56% of the vote going against, 23% in favor, and 21% abstaining.
The Nathan Cummings Foundation's Shaffer said support for such proposals is growing each year. "We introduced the first shareholder proposal for greenhouse gas emission reduction goals at Ryland in 2005 and got 7.9% shareholder support. In 2009, support was up to 29.9% of shareholders."
According to Shaffer, the foundation owns 200 shares of Lennar, 103 shares of Ryland, and 170 shares of Standard Pacific, not a lot of weight in and of itself, but enough to raise the issue.
What's clear is that the executive management and boards of directors of home building companies will have an increasing number of shareholder proposals calling for changes to both strategy and operations of their companies. Pulte, whose annual meeting takes place May 12, will vote on six shareholder proposals, mostly having to do with executive compensation.