Partners in Advocacy: Boston Common Asset Management

By Holly Testa

First Affirmative’s shareowner advocacy program does not stand alone. Many of the asset managers we use in client accounts are also our partners in advocacy—and they have powerful stories to share. In this installment, we talk with Lauren Compere, Director, Shareowner Engagement, Boston Common Asset Management.

Partners in Advocacy Boston Common1.pngBoston Common Asset Management manages substantial international holdings on behalf of its clients, and the firm’s shareowner engagements strongly reflect this international diversification. The Boston Common advocacy team travels the globe to meet face-to-face with company personnel, and the differences they encounter in culture and business practices strongly influence their approach to shareowner advocacy.

A Blended, Nuanced Approach to Engagement

Lauren Compere describes the Boston Common approach as a blended Euro American approach: “We combine the European model of constructive engagement with the open and transparent approach used here in the states. This is part of our secret sauce. Our approach results in quiet, behind-the-scenes dialogue that builds trust over time. We are really known for long-term dialogues, some spanning over a decade. This approach sends the signal to companies that we are truly long-term investors, and we have a legitimate voice at the table; more so than activist investors whose primary goal is short-term financial gain. This does not mean that we won’t escalate if we don’t see progress in our dialogues, and will use more public means such as press releases, and even shareholder proposals, if needed, to prompt company action.”

Invest Globally, Act Globally

“Get on a plane!” That’s the Boston Common key advocacy mantra. “We meet with companies at their headquarters and where they are operating,” Compere says. “We’ve been to the Amazon rain forest seeing the impact of oil development by Chevron. We’ve been to fracking fields. We’ve been to the Newmont mine in Nevada.” In other words, the Boston Common advocacy team is not afraid to get their feet dirty.

Compere believes that all of this travel makes their advocacy efforts all the more effective: “Because we engage globally, it helps us to be more enriched and informed, and we have global examples to bring to the table that allows us to address issues ahead of the curve.”

Partners in Advocacy Boston CommonCultural Adaptation Is Key

Compere reflects on cultural differences that require different approaches and expectations: “Companies in Asia, for example, are not as open and frank as U.S. companies.

Another major difference is the number of women in leadership positions. Being a woman in senior management myself, and from a different country, I find that I actually have more freedom to bring up these difficult issues than perhaps a local investor or a man could. They anticipate that I’m going to bring up this issue. In my latest trip to India in January, in all seven company meetings, we asked how the company was getting ready to implement the new sexual harassment law and what sort of training/awareness were they conducting for their workers? This is not something a domestic Indian investor would probably even think to raise, but non-discrimination and workplace environment are central ESG themes for global investors, including Boston Common.”

One often has to frame the discussion differently. “In Japan, for example, talking about companies needing to add women to their board would not gain much traction, Compere said. “Instead, we talk about what the company can do to provide a career path for women, how they are supporting working mothers and how they can develop a supportive corporate culture. It’s also important to know what countries are doing in the area you are targeting, like knowing that the Tokyo stock exchange provides rewards for diversity. In Japan, they need more workers; increasing diversity in the workforce is one way to get there. It will be one of their main drivers for growth, and management needs to be aware of this.”

To get a full picture of the situation on the ground, the conversation should be inclusive. This can be difficult as companies seek to manage the information flow. Compere says that “In Bangladesh, we saw three factories—the best suppliers for H&M, Marks & Spencer, and Debenhams… But you don’t know what is happening when you are not there, as a lot of the tours are staged. The most frank exposure we get is when we are able to talk to workers, labor unions, and local nongovernmental organizations. That’s when we get the real stories.”