Section 172: Duty to promote the success of the company
325.This duty codifies the current law and enshrines in statute what is commonly referred to as the principle of “enlightened shareholder value”. The duty requires a director to act in the way he or she considers, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole and, in doing so, have regard to the factors listed.
326.This list is not exhaustive, but highlights areas of particular importance which reflect wider expectations of responsible business behaviour, such as the interests of the company’s employees and the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment.
327.The decision as to what will promote the success of the company, and what constitutes such success, is one for the director’s good faith judgment. This ensures that business decisions on, for example, strategy and tactics are for the directors, and not subject to decision by the courts, subject to good faith.
328.In having regard to the factors listed, the duty to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence (section 174) will apply. It will not be sufficient to pay lip service to the factors, and, in many cases the directors will need to take action to comply with this aspect of the duty. At the same time, the duty does not require a director to do more than good faith and the duty to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence would require, nor would it be possible for a director acting in good faith to be held liable for a process failure which would not have affected his decision as to which course of action would best promote the success of the company.
329.In requiring directors to have regard to the interests of employees, this provision replaces section 309(1) of the 1985 Act.
330.Subsection (2) addresses the question of altruistic, or partly altruistic, companies. Examples of such companies include charitable companies and community interest companies, but it is possible for any company to have “unselfish” objectives which prevail over the “selfish” interests of members. Where the purpose of the company is something other than the benefit of its members, the directors must act in the way they consider, in good faith, would be most likely to achieve that purpose. It is a matter for the good faith judgment of the director as to what those purposes are, and, where the company is partially for the benefit of its members and partly for other purposes, the extent to which those other purposes apply in place of the benefit of the members.
331.Subsection (3) recognises that the duty to promote the success of the company is displaced when the company is insolvent. Section 214 of the Insolvency Act 1986 provides a mechanism under which the liquidator can require the directors to contribute towards the funds available to creditors in an insolvent winding up, where they ought to have recognised that the company had no reasonable prospect of avoiding insolvent liquidation and then failed to take all reasonable steps to minimise the loss to creditors.
332.It has been suggested that the duty to promote the success of the company may also be modified by an obligation to have regard to the interests of creditors as the company nears insolvency. Subsection (3)will leave the law to develop in this area.