Disputes between shareholders sometimes have serious consequences for a business corporation and can be an impediment to the carrying on of the operations in the ordinary course of business. Such disputes are usually complex and costly while also being protracted in nature. In this context, a well‑written shareholders’ agreement that is tailored to the business can help to avoid disputes or, at least, limit their scope and provide a framework for managing them.
Shareholders’ agreements may not age well over time. They may not evolve in sync with the business and its shareholders, particularly in a context of expansion and growth. Furthermore, it is generally difficult to change a shareholders’ agreement once it has been signed, and an attempt to change the ground rules in midstream could be a source of additional conflicts between the shareholders. It is therefore imperative for the shareholders to establish their rights and obligations, as well as those of the corporation, in a shareholders’ agreement as early as possible in the life of the corporation.
No one will be surprised to learn that money is the main cause of disputes between shareholders, whether it is the money invested (or to be invested) in the corporation or money that the corporation pays (or will pay) to its shareholders in the form of dividends or otherwise. At the same time, the shareholders’ contributions in property, services, time and money often create friction within the corporation, particularly since the shareholders’ business, financial and other expectations may evolve differently - even in opposite directions - over time.
Apart from financial issues, personal conflicts can also inflame the relationship between the shareholders, especially when family members are involved with the business. The same is true when decisions are to be made on the global objectives of the corporation and strategic issues.
In addition, if the corporation has shareholders from different jurisdictions, cultural differences can also give rise to tension between the shareholders. In such cases, the text of the shareholders’ agreement must be very explicit and should, if possible, be supported by concrete examples of the application of the more complex clauses, such as valuation of the shares and the procedure for exercising a right of first refusal. In all cases, it is essential to provide for the order of priority for the exercise of the various rights, remedies and mechanisms contained in the agreement to avoid adding issues of interpretation of the agreement to the existing business issues.
It is often at times when the business of the corporation is not faring so well that the common disagreements between shareholders tend to flare up and lead to litigation. The shareholders’ agreement should therefore anticipate the future situations which the corporation may face, whether positive or negative, such as refinancing, the arrival of new shareholders, family succession, the acquisition or sale of a business, international expansion, the development of new markets, and retirement from the business.
The ability to anticipate future developments takes on its full importance when one considers the context in which the shareholders’ agreement is being entered into. Thus, the shareholders’ and drafter’s objectives may be different in the case of an agreement concluded for tax and estate planning purposes versus an agreement dealing, for instance, with the arrival of a new investor, a transaction for the acquisition of the business (e.g., business transfer or succession) or a start‑up situation. Even in a very particular context such as this, the shareholders’ agreement should still give the corporation and its shareholders the means to achieve their ambitions and the requisite flexibility to carry out all their business projects.
In addition to their status as shareholders, the shareholders may also hold several other titles or functions in the corporation, since they often also act as directors, officers and employees. Disputes may therefore arise as a result of these different roles and the associated rights and obligations, and degenerate very quickly into personal disputes.
The drafting and negotiation of a shareholders’ agreement is a complex and exacting exercise requiring both legal and practical experience. Thus, a review of the cases in the courts shows that disputes pertaining to the most complex terms and conditions of the agreement, such as the mechanisms for the arrival and departure of shareholders and transfers of securities (right of first refusal, purchase and sale (shotgun) clause, etc.) as well as interpretation of non-competition, non-solicitation and intellectual property provisions, are among the subjects most frequently debated in the courts.
Valuation mechanisms for assessing the price of the shares in different situations should also be clearly established in the shareholders’ agreement. Such mechanisms should oversee and govern any discussions on the value to be attributed to the shares of the corporation in the context of a sale or transfer, including in complicated situations where there are ongoing disputes among the parties.
Lastly, it is fundamental to provide for effective conflict resolution mechanisms tailored to the needs of the parties ( confidentiality of the process, cultural and linguistic factors, obligation to pursue the operations of the business as a going concern in spite of the dispute, etc.) that allow for action to be taken quickly to preserve the value of the business. This will enable the parties to avoid the forced liquidation of the business, with its disastrous consequences for the employees, suppliers and clients.