Whether or not to acquire a minority or “toehold” stake in a public company as a preliminary step towards a future business combination has been the subject of tactical debate for many years. Proponents argue that a toehold can be used by a potential bidder to convey its serious intent or, if necessary, as a platform to quietly or publicly put the target in play. In addition, the position could advantage a buyer in a subsequent sale process by reducing its average cost (by acquiring shares before a deal premium attaches) or acquiring a meaningful voting position in the target; at the very least, the profit on the toehold that the acquirer can collect if another buyer succeeds with a higher bid may cover, or exceed, the costs the acquirer incurs in pursuing the target. On the flip side, demurrers point out the risk of being perceived as employing strong-arm tactics when a velvet glove approach is more likely to win over the “hearts and minds” of the target. Moreover, many a target board may reflexively react in an unduly defensive manner, for example by enacting a poison pill, complicating an attempt to reach a negotiated outcome at a desirable price.
The debate has recently sharpened with comments from at least one Delaware judge who has taken the view that the failure to acquire a stake before approaching a target conveys a lack of seriousness about making a potential bid and is evidence of being a “stupid acquirer.” A small stake (even as little as 100 shares) in a potential target represents a low-cost option for better positioning the acquirer in the event of litigation if a sale process does not unfold in the way the buyer would like (e.g., the target board refuses to engage with the buyer or agrees to a sale to another buyer). Only by owning a stake will the buyer have “standing” as a shareholder of the target to bring legal claims against the target or its board, a need that may not become apparent until it is too late to rectify.read more