It is a matter for the board of a society to decide whether to recommend a transfer to its members. The overriding duty of the board is to reach a view having regard to what is in the best interests of the society in the short and long term, including the interests of the members as a whole, both present and future, as members of a building society, both borrowing members and shareholding members. The board of a society may also reasonably consider the interests of customers who are not members, of the staff, of suppliers of goods and services, and of the wider community.
The decision of the board to recommend a transfer must be based on a proper evaluation of the issues in relation to a strategic assessment of how the society can best serve its members. One element of that assessment will be the forward business plan of the successor company (including, in the case of a takeover, how the successor company plans to integrate the business of the society) which will be relevant to:
the presentation of the case to the members; and
the submission to the Banking Regulator for permission to carry on the regulated activities which it will undertake as a result of the transfer.
Copies of the plan should be provided to the Authorityand to the Banking Regulator (if the latter is a different authority in another member state).
Neither conversion nor takeover are likely to figure routinely as options in societies' corporate plans. However, a board may develop the society's business in ways which point to the need to consider the transfer option: in which case, a transfer should be foreseen and emerge from the board's strategic plans. If a board is considering the options of conversion or merger with another society, it should, as a matter of prudence, consider how it would respond to a counter proposal and develop appropriate contingency plans.
When a board is seriously considering conversion or a takeover, the range of issues which it will need to assess will vary from case to case and is for the board to decide. However, the board will necessarily have regard to its primary duty to reach a view on what is in the best interest of the members, as members of a building society, and not only their short-term interests. It will also be conscious of the requirement to give, in the Transfer Statement, a factual account of the options which it considered and of the reasons why it decided to recommend to the members the terms of any proposed transfer and of the qualifying conditions for any distribution of funds or shares in the successor company in consideration of the transfer.
A board will usually wish to announce its proposals as soon as possible after it has decided to recommend a transfer to the society's members. In particular, the board will no doubt wish to inform the members and staff of the proposed terms so that they do not then operate their accounts, or otherwise act, in ignorance of proposals which would have affected their behaviour. The board will also wish to avoid misleading potential investors and borrowers; and societies with listed PIBS must have regard to the Authority'srequirements concerning early disclosure of any information which might affect the price of securities. However, a board may not feel able to make an immediate announcement, perhaps for prudential or commercial reasons, or because it first wishes to settle all the details of the proposed terms. In these circumstances, the board must have contingency plans to make an early announcement to deal with any potentially damaging rumours and to avoid members being misled or left in a state of uncertainty. In considering the timing and terms of an announcement, the board will wish to minimise the risk of destabilising flows of funds.
The announcement, particularly information provided directly to members and staff, should make it clear that the proposal is subject to approval by the members and completion of the statutory procedures. It should also be made clear, in the case of a takeover, and if such is the case, that the proposal is subject to completion of due diligence investigations by the acquirer and, in either a conversion or takeover when shares in the successor company are to be issued, that the proposal is subject to the shares being listed on the London Stock Exchange or elsewhere. Boards should be careful to avoid appearing to assume that the outcome is a foregone conclusion, and should identify any matters of substance on which the proposed terms of the transfer remain to be settled. Briefing of staff who will be responsible for responding to enquiries from members and the Press should be considered carefully and prepared in advance of the announcement to avoid any risk of members being unintentionally misled. A freephone helpline may be desirable for members' enquiries about whether they qualify for any distribution under the proposed transfer scheme, but again the staff must be well briefed. It is essential that the announcement, and subsequent information given to members before they are sent the statutory Transfer Statement, or Summary, and in any briefing of the Press, is entirely consistent with what will appear in that Statement. In particular, members should be advised to await the Transfer Summary, and especially the Transfer Statement which will contain full details of the proposals and the information relevant to their decision on how they wish to vote.
The board should consult the Authorityand, if a different body, the Banking Regulator at an early stage in its consideration of transfer proposals, and certainly no later than its decision in principle to seek a transfer. The complexities of the statutory provisions are such that it is necessary to have the proposed transfer terms specified very closely indeed before it is possible for the Authorityto take a view on whether the proposals are fully in conformity with the 1986 Act. The Banking Regulator will not be in a position, at this early stage, to give positive assurances as to the permission to be given to the successor company. However, a prudent board will seek the views of the Authority, and also, if different, of the Banking Regulator, before it decides to announce its transfer proposals to the members. This preliminary discussion with the Authoritywill necessarily cover the proposed structure of the successor company or group and a written specification of the transfer terms, particularly the scheme for distribution of any consideration to be offered to the members for the loss of their membership rights in the society, which members and other persons are to benefit, and the criteria for qualification.
Should there be a difference of view between the Authorityand the society as to whether a scheme, or a particular feature of it, is in conformity with the 1986 Act, it may prove desirable to apply to the High Court for a declaration. It will then be necessary for any preliminary announcement of the board's proposals to make the position clear, and for it to allow sufficient time in its proposed timetable for the application to be heard, and for any appeal.
In addition to information about the proposed transfer scheme, the Authoritywill expect the board to provide it with information about its plans for ensuring the prudent management of the society through to the proposed vesting date. That information will be consistent with what the board itself will require, bearing in mind that it is for the board to exercise due diligence and to be satisfied that the society's business continues to be directed and managed prudently. The information required is:
the names and responsibilities of senior managers assigned to manage the transfer process;
an assessment of the systems requirements of the transfer process, together with the specification of work to be done by consultants (e.g. the external auditors/scrutineers) and their report(s);
contingency plans, with sensitivity and risk assessments, for managing funding and liquidity during the transitional period;
copies of the business plans of the successor company as submitted in connection with its permission to carry on the regulated activities which it will undertake as a result of the transfer.
The Authoritywill also wish to have a letter from or on behalf of the society's board, which consents to the Authoritydiscussing the society's affairs with the Banking Regulator (if a different body) and the competent authority for listing in the U.K. (if a different body from the Authorityand an issue of shares in the successor company is intended to be made in connection with the transfer).
A transfer is exceptionally time-consuming for senior management. The Authority will wish to be satisfied that the society has sufficient management resources to cover both the transfer and its day-to-day business within its proposed transfer timetable. It will usually be necessary for the society severely to limit new business developments and initiatives during the transitional period. It should also be noted that the requirements for information to be provided to members mean that full disclosure will be required in the Transfer Statement of any negotiations in progress on acquisition or other links during the transfer process. The Banking Regulator must be kept fully informed of any such plans because any changes to the society's business, structure, controls etc. may well be relevant to the terms of its successor company's permission.
The Authoritywill appoint a project team, responsible for operational management of the Authority'sfunctions in relation to the transfer process. The expectation would be that the team will include the Manager responsible for the society's supervision and one of the Authority'slegal advisers. Names and contact numbers will be provided to the society. The Authoritywould strongly advise a society similarly to appoint a project team, headed by a senior manager responsible to the board for management of the whole process and with authority to control the drafting and verification of the Transfer Document, other briefing and information to members, and responses to representations at the confirmation stage. Strong central control under the direction of the board is, in the Authority'sview, essential for effective management of a transfer.
The society will be expected to provide the Authoritywith a systems report from its auditors together with an action plan to remedy any shortcomings. The Banking Regulator, if a different body, may have similar requirements. This report is only part of the full information package which the Banking Regulator will (or is likely to) require in connection with the successor company's permission to carry on the regulated activities which it will undertake as a result of the transfer and which will be needed so that the Authoritycan be satisfied in relation to its requirements up to the vesting date.
The society will need to develop plans to deal with a number of possible contingencies; for example, receipt of a counter-offer (whether private or public) during the transfer process, changes in market conditions or financial results which materially affect the information given in the Transfer Statement, failure to obtain the members' approval, delay of the planned vesting date and of any flotation, and greater exposure to liquidity risk during the transitional period. The Transfer Agreement should include provision for its termination if, for any reason, flotation does not take place within a specified period after confirmation, and for the board to decide not to proceed if market conditions or other developments mean that it would not be reasonable to do so having regard to the basis on which it secured the approval of the members. The Authoritywill wish to see the society's contingency plans.
Before it approves the Transfer Statement, the Authoritywill wish to be satisfied that the successor company is expected to have permission to carry on such regulated activities as will enable it to undertake the business it will have as result of the transfer. It will also ask the Banking Regulator, if different, to confirm that the information given in the draft Transfer Statement appears to be consistent with, and has no material omission of, information available to the Banking Regulator.