Shareholders of the World, Unite!

Most investors are passive bystanders in boardroom battles. Tumelo wants to get them involved – and take fund managers out of the ideological crossfire.

Georgia Stewart, in 2017 a final-year student at Cambridge University, campaigned to have the endowment sell off its fossil fuel stocks. That didn’t get far. “When I was there they divested from tar sands,” she says dismissively. Anyway, she goes on, “divestment is not necessarily the best outcome. You just end up with shareholders who don’t care.”

Out of those sour grapes came a business idea. Stewart, 27, is the chief executive of Tumelo, a five-year-old Bristol, England, firm that gives investors a platform through which to express their views in proxy contests. “We want more transparency and accountability,” Stewart says.

With 57 employees and $22 million in venture capital, Tumelo is not yet in the black but is positioned to get there. It finds itself on a battlefield in which do-gooders promoting causes like carbon reduction and gender equity are
at war with anti-wokers who say corporations should have no mission except making a profit.

In theory, the shareholders of Exxon Mobil control it and can vote to replace the oil wells with solar panels if that’s what they want. Two problems here: One is that you probably own your shares indirectly. If you have $100,000 in an S&P 500 index fund, you have twelve shares of Exxon, but you don’t get the proxy. The fund operator does.

And then, if you did get the voting rights, what would you do with them? Did you have an opinion on Proposal No. 6 at last year’s Exxon meeting, “Reduce company emissions and hydrocarbon sales”? Do you have time to read around 500 proxy statements?

Tumelo steps in the middle, collecting fees from brokers and funds that want to offer a voting feature as a selling point. The retail client gives Tumelo read-only access to a brokerage account, then selects from a menu of nine policy choices. There’s one espousing an anticarbon stance, another promoting worker rights and so on. The fund gets a report collating all the preferences and share counts of its Tumelo-­active investors. The fund manager can then, with the help of proxy advisory firms like Glass Lewis, translate a policy into a vote on
each proposal.

So far Tumelo has some degree of buy-in from Legal & General, a $1.6 trillion asset manager in the U.K.; Cushon, a London investment firm promoting what it calls carbon-­free pensions; and the international arm of Fidelity Investments. Tumelo hopes to announce its first U.S. part­ner soon.

At the moment these shareholder counts are wishes, not commands; in both the U.K. and the U.S., the voting power unmistakably resides with the fund manager. Indeed, in Tumelo’s early days flow-through voting was too radical an idea and the firm did no more than help investment firms inform their clients how various funds were behaving in proxy contests. “If our stewardship started out giving votes, [money managers] would have laughed us out of the room,” Stewart says. But now, she says, the world is moving powerfully in the direction of shareholder democracy.

Stewart concocted this business with the help of two risk-loving Cambridge classmates, Will Goodwin and Benjamin King. Goodwin is now head of U.S. operations; King wrote the first pieces of a software package that now runs to 1.6 million lines of code and just quit to take up paragliding.

It was a cheapskate operation. In the first year the threesome holed up in the basement of Goodwin’s parents’ house and got free advice from a business incubator attached to the University of Bath. Stewart took the bus to get to the investment office of musician Peter Gabriel to land some venture capital.

Lacking the money for a brand search, the founders typed “belief” into Google Translate and scrolled through the languages, looking for a word whose URL was not taken and which did not mean something awful in one of the other 133 lan­guages. Sesotho, a language spoken primarily in southern Africa, came through.

Tumelo’s timing is good. Money managers who just a few years ago might have bristled at the idea of letting customers vote seem to be welcoming the idea today. Consider the plight of Larry Fink, who over­sees $9 trillion of other people’s money as the head of Blackrock. He has made pronouncements on how corporations must cut carbon emissions and pursue social justice. Now he has money man Vivek Ramaswamy plus a gang of state treasurers complaining that Blackrock has no right to inject left-wing politics into boardrooms. Solution: Have the clients do the crusading. Blackrock has a system to let institutional clients make proxy choices. Vanguard Group says it’s going to experiment with giving small investors in its funds a say.

No problem if the giant brokers and fund managers create their own systems for tracking investor wishes; once they pave the way, smaller outfits wanting to offer a voting feature can turn to Tumelo for a ready-made solution – and get the portfolio manager out of the middle of ideological battles. “A fund mana­ger invested in Walmart did not expect they would have to vote on abortion last year. That has nothing to do with the investment thesis,” Stewart says.

It’s easy to see where Stewart and her cofounders envision that democracy could take the corporate world between now and when they cash in their pension funds. “Retirement is not just the number in your bank account,” she says. “What about your family’s employment, the air you breathe, your health?”

But if savers want to hand their proxies to some raider promising fatter dividends, never mind the workers or the atmosphere, so be it. “Does Greta [Thunberg] or Vivek [Ramaswamy] speak for you?,” Stewart asks. “At the moment you can’t make that decision.”

Text: William Baldwin
Photo: Levon Biss for Forbes

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