Dual or multi-class capitalization structures generally allow companies to sell large amounts of shares to the public while maintaining control in the hands of the founders and early investors. Popularized by the Google IPO in 2004, weighted voting rights have since been featured in the high profile IPOs of LinkedIn, Groupon, Zynga, Facebook, Fitbit and Blue Apron. Snap then took them to a new level last year when it acknowledged (or boasted) that it was the first company to launch an IPO with shares having zero voting rights. I blogged about Snap’s IPO here.
Dropbox, Inc. is now the latest to go public with a multi-class structure. Having submitted its registration statement confidentially in early January, Dropbox finally filed its S-1 publicly on February 23. Dropbox’s S-1 shows that its capital structure consists of three classes of authorized common – Class A, Class B and Class C – with the rights of the holders of all three classes being identical except with respect to voting. Class A shares (offered to the public) are entitled to one vote per share, Class B shares are entitled to ten votes per share and Class C shares have no voting rights, except as otherwise required by law. Although the general rule in Delaware is that each share receives one vote, a corporation may provide in its certificate of incorporation that a particular class or series has limited or no voting rights.
Because of the ten-to-one vote ratio between Dropbox’s Class B and Class A, the Class B stockholders – basically the co-founders and lead VCs Sequoia, Accel and T. Rowe Price — will continue to control a majority of the combined voting power, and therefore be able to control all matters submitted to stockholders for approval. This concentrated control will limit or preclude the Series A holders from having an influence over corporate matters for the foreseeable future, including the election of directors, amendments of the certificate of incorporation and by-laws and any merger, sale of all or substantially all the assets or other major transaction requiring stockholder approval. The concentration of voting power may also discourage unsolicited acquisition proposals.
The concentration of power in the Dropbox founders will likely only grow over time. Under an automatic conversion feature, future transfers of Class B shares will generally result in conversion into the lower voting Class A shares, subject to limited carve-outs for estate planning transfers and transfers between co-founders. The conversion of Class B shares to Class A will have the effect, over time, of increasing the relative voting power of those Class B holders who retain their shares. Moreover, any future offerings of Class C shares will increase the concentration of ownership and control by the founders even further than would be the case in an offering of A shares because the C shares carry no voting rights at all (except as otherwise required by law). Consequently, the cumulative effect of the disproportionate voting power of the B shares, the automatic conversion feature upon transfer of B shares and the possibility of issuance of C shares is that the founders may be able to elect all of Dropbox’s directors and to determine the outcome of most matters submitted to a stockholder vote indefinitely.
Dual-class structures have been the subject of a great deal of controversy. Some stock exchanges had banned them, only to reverse course because of stiff competition for listings. See here for case in point regarding Hong Kong, the NYSE and Ali Baba. Investors have loudly objected to this structure, both through the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee and the Council of Institutional Investors. As a result of that opposition, FTSE Russell and Standard & Poor’s announced last year that they would cease to allow most newly public companies utilizing dual or multi-class capital structures to be included in their broad stock indices. Affected indices include the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400 and S&P SmallCap 600. Consequently, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and other investment vehicles that attempt to passively track these indices will not be investing in the stock of any company with dual-class shares. Although it’s too early to tell for sure what impact, if any, these new index policies will have on the valuations of Dropbox and other publicly traded companies excluded from the indices, it’s entirely possible that the exclusions may depress these valuations compared to those of similar companies that are included in the indices. Interestingly, just two weeks ago, SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr. gave his first speech since being appointed, entitled “Perpetual Dual-Class Stock: The Case Against Corporate Royalty“, in which he expressed his opposition to index exclusions despite his serious concerns regarding dual-class stock, calling index exclusion a blunt instrument and worrying that “Main Street investors may lose out on the chance to be a part of the growth of our most innovative companies”.
And how do companies like Dropbox defend dual-class structures? They would assert that weighted voting rights enable management to make long term decisions that are in the best interests of the company and to resist the short-termism that typically results from pressure brought by major stockholders to maximize quarterly results which often means sacrificing long term interests and performance. They would further argue that efforts to exclude companies with weighted voting rights from stock indices are counter-productive because they serve to discourage those companies from going public in the first place, thus denying public company investors the opportunity to invest in innovative, high growth companies.
Perhaps the sensible compromise here would be sunset provisions, under which dual-class structures would sunset after a fixed period of time, such as five, ten or fifteen years, unless their extension is approved by stockholders unaffiliated with the controlling group. Snap’s muti-class structure has no sunset provision; the only way the two founders could ever effectively lose control of Snap is if both died. By contrast, Google has a sunset provision on its dual-class shares. The Council of Institutional Investors sent a noisy letter to Blue Apron just before its IPO last year urging the company to adopt a five-year sunset. And Harvard Professor Lucien Bebchuck published a paper last year called “The Untenable Case for Perpetual Dual-Class Stock”, arguing that the potential advantages of dual-class structures tend to recede, and the potential costs tend to rise, as time passes from the IPO, and advocating for finite-term dual-class structures.