Why you should add entrepreneurs to your board

A new study identifies a hotbed of expertise to boost firm value

The markets love successful entrepreneurs – investors follow them and back them with their money.

The attraction is obvious. Entrepreneurs are the ones who have the original ideas, take the risk, and work hard to build their companies and create value, not just for themselves but for the investors who have supported them.

Companies prominently advertise the entrepreneurial credentials of such individuals when they become directors. A typical example would be the November 2009 Australian Securities Exchange announcement made by Neuren Limited: "Dr John Holaday, successful biotech entrepreneur and industry expert, to join Neuren's board of directors."

So what happens when those entrepreneurs lend their expertise to other companies, in the form of board memberships?

Are they then able to have the same impact on other people's companies as they had on their own, adding value and creating the same kind of growth?

This was the starting point for a collaborative international research project involving Jerry  Parwada, professor and head of the school of banking and finance at UNSW Business School.

With former UNSW colleague Wilson Kung, Olubunmi Faleye from Northeastern University in Boston and Gloria Y. Tian from the University of Lethbridge in Canada, Parwada analysed 2051 companies in the Standard & Poor's 1500 index during the period from 2000 to 2009 and presented the findings in Are Entrepreneurs Special Evidence from Board Appointments.

The analysis focused on companies whose boards comprised entrepreneurs who had started their own firms and had delivered a track record of success. 

"We were curious as to whether they were able to transfer those attributes when they sit as independent directors on other people's boards," says Parwada.

"Did they have a positive impact not just in terms of the more immediate share price, but also in delivering long-term value to shareholders?" 

'It's clear that entrepreneurs do bring the same attributes which made their own companies successful to those where they are board members'


The impact on value

 The criteria to answer these questions was two-fold: the short-term share price as an immediate reaction to the appointment of the entrepreneur to the board, and then a second calculation, the so-called Tobin's Q, focused on longer-term value.

By the first measure, the researchers found that stock price gains for the companies showed an average cumulative abnormal return 0.74% higher than expected in the three days following an announcement.

But was this just market hype, whipped up by a press release and a favourable article in the media? The next step was to see if their presence created any value in the longer term.

According to the second measure of longer-term value, each additional entrepreneur on a company's board was associated with a 2.6% increase in the value of the company, compared with companies without entrepreneur directors.

In terms of revenue, the researchers found that where companies have at least one entrepreneur director, "mean and median revenue growth are 10.8% and 7.6% [respectively], compared with 8.9% and 6.5% for firms with no entrepreneur directors".

"It's clear that entrepreneurs do bring the same attributes which made their own companies successful to those where they are board members," says Parwada.

Small and competitive

There were some nuances, however, with differences between larger and smaller companies.

"We found that it's more likely to be the case for smaller firms, and these tend to be the ones who benefit from the presence of the entrepreneurs," says Parwada.

"There are several reasons for this. Their own firms are small, or have started small, but also smaller firms do not have too many resources they can access, so the entrepreneurs, as generalists, can have a stronger influence."

Another finding was that entrepreneur directors had more of a positive impact on companies that were in competitive industries.

Extensive modelling of this trait found that the presence of an entrepreneur director in this context made a "positive and significant" difference.

It was clear from the research, says Parwada, that the entrepreneurs brought something "unique" to the performance of these companies.

Entrepreneurs are creative, less risk-averse and have a broad range of skills particularly useful to smaller firms with fewer resources. They tend to be younger and better educated than other directors, and they also offer firms a combination of skills that would otherwise require several specialist directors to replicate.

"Configuration of boards is a critical element for smaller firms, because they don't have access to such a large pool of prospective professional directors," says Parwada.

Smaller firms are at a disadvantage in attracting experienced directors, but Parwada suggests that this could be redressed by focusing on attracting entrepreneurs.

This would have the dual benefit of making a statement about the company to the market, and also the skills, expertise and experience the entrepreneurs were able to transfer.

'We often think of entrepreneurs just as people who make money for themselves'


Risks to drive growth

Their presence also attenuates management's understanding of risk and helps in the identification of growth opportunities, and can have a positive outcome on governance.

Shareholders, who are protected by limited liability, are generally tolerant of a higher level of risk-taking than managers, whose private benefits are tied to the firm's survival.

Managers tend to avoid risks which shareholders find acceptable, and prioritise projects with lower risk and more immediate cash flow against projects that have the potential to deliver higher value.

Entrepreneurs have experience both as shareholders and as managers, and their experience in starting and nurturing their own business can attenuate risk when they act as independent board members.

Parwada and his colleagues suggest that firms with entrepreneur directors will be more likely to take risks to drive growth and value, and that this is one of the more important positive contributions these directors can make.

In their study, they measure investment in research & development and find that firms with entrepreneur directors have a significantly higher R&D spend.

These companies also display higher levels of corporate risk-taking. Risk-taking is either value-enhancing or, as the study says, "represents reckless experimentation".

The co-authors suggest that where risk-taking is associated with higher levels of R&D, then that risk-taking is more likely to enhance value.

Hotbed of expertise

Parwada believes there are some key lessons here, particularly for smaller companies, and that the message has significant relevance in Australia.

"Well over 60% of the Australian economy is driven by entrepreneur firms, and so that is a hotbed of expertise sitting right there where managers and founders of those firms could well be making additional contributions to the economy by transferring their skills sets," he says.

Policy-makers should take heed. Entrepreneurs could be seen as a public resource around which new policies and programs could be constructed which harnessed their experience and insights to the good of the wider economy.

"We often think of entrepreneurs just as people who make money for themselves," says Parwada.

"But here we have shown they have an influence beyond their own firms, and can make significant contributions in other ways.

"That is an interesting lesson and a finding which can be acted on, not just by smaller firms looking to recruit board members but by our policy-makers."


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