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The market has changed, but super-voting shares are here to stay, says Mr. IPO

Image Credits: Mat Hayward / Getty Images

Yesterday, the ride-sharing company Lyft said its two co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, are stepping down from managing the company’s day-to-day operations, though they are retaining their board seats. According to a related regulatory filing, they actually need to hang around as "service providers" to receive their original equity award agreements. (If Lyft is sold or they're fired from the board, they'll see "100% acceleration" of these "time-based" vesting conditions.)

As with so many founders who’ve used multi-class voting structures in recent years to cement their control, their original awards were fairly generous. When Lyft went public in 2019, its dual-class share structure provided Green and Zimmer with super-voting shares that entitled them to 20 votes per share in perpetuity, meaning not just for life but also for a period of nine to 18 months after the passing of the last living co-founder, during which time a trustee would retain control.

It all seemed a little extreme, even as such arrangements became more common in tech. Now, Jay Ritter, the University of Florida professor whose work tracking and analyzing IPOs has earned him the moniker Mr. IPO, suggests that if anything, Lyft’s trajectory might make shareholders even less nervous about dual-stock structures.

For one thing, with the possible exception of Google’s founders — who came up with an entirely new share class in 2012 to preserve their power — founders lose their stranglehold on power as they sell their shares, which then convert to a one-vote-per-one-share structure. Green, for example, still controls 20% of the shareholder voting rights at Lyft, while Zimmer now controls 12% of the company’s voting rights, he told the WSJ yesterday.

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Further, says Ritter, even tech companies with dual-class shares are policed by shareholders who make it clear what they will or will not tolerate. Again, just look at Lyft, whose shares were trading at 86% below their offering price earlier today in a clear sign that investors have -- at least for now -- lost confidence in the outfit.

We talked with Ritter last night about why stakeholders aren't likely to push too hard against super-voting shares, despite that now would seem the time to do it. Excerpts from that conversation, below, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TC: Majority voting power for founders became widespread over the last dozen years or so, as VCs and even exchanges did what they could to appear founder-friendly. According to your own research, between 2012 and last year, the percentage of tech companies going public with dual-class shares shot from 15% to 46%. Should we expect this to reverse course now that the market has tightened and money isn't flowing so freely to founders?

JR: The bargaining power of founders versus VCs has changed in the last year, that's true, and public market investors have never been enthusiastic about founders having super voting stock. But as long as things go well, there isn't pressure on managers to give up super voting stock. One reason U.S. investors haven’t been overly concerned about dual-class structures is that, on average, companies with dual-class structures have delivered for shareholders. It's only when stock prices decline that people start questioning: Should we have this?

Isn't that what we are seeing currently?

With a general downturn, even if a company is executing according to plan, shares have fallen in many cases.

So you expect that investors and public shareholders will remain complacent about this issue despite the market.

In recent years, there haven’t been a lot of examples where entrenched management is doing things wrong. There have been cases where an activist hedge fund is saying, "We don’t think you’re pursuing the right strategy." But one of the reasons for complacency is that there are checks and balances. It’s not the case where, as in Russia, a manager can loot the company and public shareholders can’t do anything about it. They can vote with their feet. There are also shareholder lawsuits. These can be abused, but the threat of them [keeps companies in check]. What's also true, especially of tech companies where employees have so much equity-based compensation, is that CEOs are going to be happier when their stock goes up in price but they also know their employees will be happier when the stock is doing well.

Before WeWork's original IPO plans famously imploded in the fall of 2019, Adam Neumann expected to have so much voting control over the company that he could pass it along to future generations of Neumanns.

But when the attempt to go public backfired -- [with the market saying] just because SoftBank thinks it’s worth $47 billion doesn’t mean we think it’s worth that much -- he faced a trade-off. It was, "I can keep control or take a bunch of money and walk away" and "Would I rather be poorer and in control or richer and move on?" and he decided, "I’ll take the money."

I think Lyft's founders have the same trade-off.

Meta is perhaps a better example of a company whose CEO's super-voting power has worried many, most recently as the company has leaned into the metaverse.

A number of years ago, when Facebook was still Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg proposed doing what Larry Page and Sergey Brin had done at Google but he got a lot of pushback and backed down instead of pushing it through. Now if he wants to sell off stock to diversify his portfolio, he gives up some votes. The way most of these companies with super voting stock are structured is that if they sell it, it automatically converts into one-share-one-stock sales, so someone who buys it doesn't get extra votes.

A story in Bloomberg earlier today asked why there are so many family dynasties in media -- the Murdochs, the Sulzbergers -- but not in tech. What do you think?

The media industry is different from the tech industry. Forty years ago, there was analysis of dual-class companies and, at the time, a lot of the dual-class companies were media: the [Bancroft family, which previously owned the Wall Street Journal], the Sulzbergers with the New York Times. There were also a lot of dual-class structures associated with gambling and alcohol companies before tech firms began [taking companies public with this structure in place]. But family firms are nonexistent in tech because the motivations are different; dual-class structures are [solely] meant to keep founders in control. Also, tech companies come and go pretty rapidly. With tech, you can be successful for years and then a new competitor comes along and suddenly . . .

So the bottom line, in your view, is that dual-class shares aren't going away, no matter that shareholders don't like them. They don't dislike them enough to do anything about them. Is that right?

If there was concern about entrenched management pursuing stupid policies for years, investors would be demanding bigger discounts. That might have been the case with Adam Neumann; his control wasn’t something that made investors enthusiastic about the company. But for most tech companies -- of which I would not consider WeWork -- because you have not only the founder but employees with equity-linked compensation, there is a lot of implicit, if not explicit, pressure on shareholder value maximization rather than kowtowing to the founders' whims. I’d be surprised if they disappeared.