By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eighteen months after officially burying the hatchet in one of America's most bitter proxy contests, Procter & Gamble Co <PG.N> CEO David Taylor and billionaire investor Nelson Peltz proclaimed their mutual respect on Thursday, underscoring how activists and corporations can end up working collaboratively.
Sitting next to each other on a hotel stage in New York at the CNBC Institutional Investor Delivering Alpha Conference, the men brushed away the acrimony of two years ago when Peltz' Trian Partners was battling P&G over its strategy and asking for a board seat.
"That was the fog of war," Peltz said, dismissing the rough comments P&G had made about the veteran activist who works to present himself as a partner who can offer constructive advice rather than a corporate raider intent on breaking up companies.
After an incredibly close proxy contest, which could have dragged on for months, Taylor invited Peltz to join the board, which he did in early 2018.
Since then, the men say the have communicated a lot as the company took Trian's white paper to heart and hired consulting firm McKinsey for additional input on how the consumer products company, whose brands include Tide detergent and Pampers diapers, can move more quickly and nimbly.
"I found that the most important ingredient a CEO needs to have is to be a good listener," Peltz said, adding: "Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. We have an attitude at Trian, we steal any good idea. We’d rather be rich than right."
The partnership is clearly paying off for all shareholders as P&G's share price has surged 50% since before Peltz joined the board and has gained 32% in 2019 alone.
"I don't have to be right. I have to get the right thing done," Taylor said.
Peltz joked that he had promised to shave his beard when P&G hit a price of $120 per share and he made good on that Wednesday when he cut it off, with P&G razors, of course.
As the men bantered, their once bitter fight brought home some parallels to a contest taking shape between AT&T <T.N> and Elliott Management.
Investors in the audience, including powerful pension funds from Massachusetts and Florida, got a glimpse at how activists and companies can work together, as AT&T undertakes a review of suggestions for a corporate overhaul from Elliott.
Elliott has urged AT&T to divest some units, save $5 billion in costs, stop acquiring more companies and review its leadership. While the hedge fund has a number of potential board candidates, it has not disclosed their names and said privately it has no specific number of directors in mind.
Recent academic research has pointed to a growing appetite for settlements between activists and companies.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Additional reporting by Jessica DiNapoli; Editing by Tom Brown)