Friday, 28 August 2015

Organisational culture: ASIC’s renewed focus

Commissioner Greg Tanzer, on behalf of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), recently delivered a speech about the importance of organisational culture, hinting at a renewed focus to target poor culture, with reference to recent concerns in the financial services sector.

Of course, Commissioner Tanzer’s comments on culture do not just apply to financial services, having relevance to businesses across a range of sectors. 

Drivers of culture

Organisational culture refers to a set of shared values and assumptions that underpin the fundamental way in which it operates.  Among other things, it can influence staff in their thoughts, attitude and behaviour, and in particular their approach to customers and vital organisational issues such as compliance.  The Criminal Code 1995 (Cth) (Criminal Code) defines ‘corporate culture’ as including attitude, policy, rules, and a course of conduct or practice.

Commissioner Tanzer argues that some of the key drivers of culture are:
  • having a board and senior management that is willing to take responsibility and ensure good outcomes for customers
  • ensuring a company’s values and beliefs are widely known and understood throughout each area of the organisation
  • enforcing an understanding that employees will be personally accountable for their actions, whether that be being rewarded for positive outcomes through promotion or awards, or not in the case of negative outcomes
  • promoting a culture of open and honest communication, whereby employees are encouraged to take part in constructive engagement and
  • promoting, and continually monitoring and assessing, an organisation’s culture, to ensure that appropriate changes are made and implemented where necessary.

The potential for criminal liability

Section 12.2 of the Criminal Code provides that in the event of the commission of an offence by an employee, agent or officer of a body corporate acting within the actual or apparent scope (or authority) of their employment, it can be attributed to the ‘employer’ body corporate.  ASIC Chairman Greg Medcraft has made clear that this extends to a company being held responsible as an accessory for a breach of certain Commonwealth laws by its employees if the company’s culture either encouraged, or otherwise tolerated, that breach.

According to Mr Medcraft, in ASIC’s view, the power to take action in such a case should extend further to apply to civil penalties and administrative sanctions.

ASIC’s concern with culture

ASIC contends that a negative organisational culture drives bad conduct, going so far as to say that bad conduct may even be rewarded in organisations where a negative organisational culture is evident.  Accordingly, ASIC considers poor culture to be a key risk area which it will seek to address in its role as regulator, and it is clear that there will be an increased focus by ASIC on culture in the future.

In light of these comments, it is a good time for all businesses to consider whether they have laid the foundations for a strong organisational culture.  Not only does this include taking steps to implement appropriate governance policies and related procedures, but also ensuring those policies and procedures are fully understood and embedded in the workings of the organisation.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Crowd funding: no joy for start-ups?

  • Consultation on an Australian crowd funding framework begins

  • Framework based on public companies

The likely framework for crowd funding by Australian public companies has been released by Treasury, with yesterday’s consultation paper setting out the key elements.

In focusing on crowd funding by public companies, the paper leaves open a key question on how proprietary (or private) Australian companies (representing approximately 99% of Australian companies) are to approach crowd funding, and capital raising more generally, with the Government seeking further comments from industry stakeholders on potential changes to private company arrangements.

Public company framework

Following on from our earlier posts (Treasury invites feedback on crowd funding and Budget focus on crowd funding), some of the key concepts for the new public company framework, which generally reflect prior consultations and developments internationally, include:
  • issuers must be registered as a public company in Australia, with relief being granted from certain compliance requirements for up to 5 years (e.g. to allow online annual reporting and alleviate the company from holding an AGM), provided the company has not raised funds under existing public offer arrangements and the company’s gross assets are below certain specified thresholds
  • a cap of $5 million on the amount on issuer can raise using crowd funding each year (which excludes funds raised under existing exemptions for sophisticated and professional investors)
  • ‘self-assessed’ investment caps for individual investors of $10,000 per offer each year and an aggregate investment cap of $25,000 for the year
  • securities offered must be within one class of fully paid ordinary shares per offer at the same price, and subject to the same terms and conditions
  • intermediary platforms, holding an Australian financial services license, will be responsible for undertaking prescribed checks on the issuer and monitoring compliance
  • prohibiting the intermediary from offering investment advice or lending to investors, and
  • reduced disclosure requirements through standardised documentation, which includes mandatory risk warnings and an acknowledgement statement to be given by investors.
Some key points of difference from previous consultation papers are:
  • dropping the concept of a new form of Australian company, the ‘exempt public company’, and instead relying on specific reporting relief (as noted above) for existing public companies, and
  • providing flexibility for intermediaries to negotiate their fee structures and invest in issuers via the intermediary platform, provided such arrangements are appropriately disclosed.

Next steps for private companies

With the framework for public companies made clear, a number of questions are now put forward in the consultation paper on potential arrangements for private companies, including:
  • if the restriction on the number of shareholders, currently set at no more than 50 non-employee shareholders, should be raised
  • 2 if private companies should also be given access to a crowd funding framework (tailored to reflect the differences between a private and public company), noting a requirement to convert to a public company to access crowd funding would likely pose a significant barrier to many, and
  • 3 identifying ways in which the existing compliance costs for private companies can be reduced.
While it is good to see Australia is moving in the right direction for public companies, the questions in relation to private companies are important ones to be answered.  In our view, the fact that the vast majority of Australian start-ups and small businesses will take the form of a private, rather than public, company means that a potential crowd funding framework for such companies needs to be carefully considered.  The model may also reduce Australia’s competitive position relative to other jurisdictions, especially for relatively mobile ‘start-up’ companies.

Draft legislation for the public company framework is anticipated later in 2015, with the new laws anticipated to be introduced at the Spring sitting of parliament.  It is hoped the current momentum will be maintained for an appropriate framework for private companies.

Reece Walker (Partner) and Ben Wood (Senior Associate), will seek to engage in the consultation process on behalf of McCullough Robertson and our clients.  We welcome any comments that readers of the blog may want to contribute, with the consultation process scheduled to close on Monday, 31 August 2015.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Changes to the taxation of employee share schemes

Legislation enacting proposed changes to the taxation of interests in Australian employee share schemes (ESS), intended to ‘bolster entrepreneurship and innovation in Australia’ is now in force and applies to shares and options issued on or after 1 July 2015.

One month in to the new regime, it is a good time for companies to consider whether they are eligible to take advantage of the new start up concessions and whether offering ESS interests is an appropriate tool to reward employees.

Concessions for start ups

The legislation implements the concessions allowing ‘start-ups’ to issue shares at a discount of up to 15% to market value, or grant of ‘out of the money’ options in circumstances where employees will potentially pay no tax – unless and until those interests are ultimately sold.

To qualify, the employer company must:
  • be unlisted and hold no interests in listed entities
  • be an Australian resident company with an aggregated (i.e. group) turnover in the previous tax year of up to $50 million
  • be incorporated for less than 10 years at the time the option is granted, and
  • not be part of a group which includes entities more than 10 years old.
For the scheme, the general conditions that currently apply to all ESS concessions must be satisfied and the scheme must require employees to satisfy a 3 year holding period in relation to the interests acquired (unless employment ceases earlier).

On sale, the shares will be subject to capital gains tax (potentially providing access to the CGT 50% discount).

Newer private companies are likely to qualify where the turnover limit is met however it is important to be mindful of older companies in the group which may mean that the group is precluded from accessing the ‘start up’ concessions.

Summary of reforms for all ESS

In addition to the reforms noted above, there has also been a number of changes to the general ESS rules which apply to all entities.  In particular, the ESS rules now:
  • allow certain rights schemes to access deferred taxation treatment even where they do not contain a ‘real risk of forfeiture’ (for example, where the scheme genuinely restricts an employee from immediately disposing of their rights and expressly states that it will be subject to deferred taxation)
  • double the existing significant ownership and voting rights limitations from 5% to 10% (but ensuring all interests are taken into account, even those which may not have been exercised)
  • amend the provisions entitling employees to a refund of tax paid on the grant of options in circumstances where the employee chooses not to exercise that right, and
  • extend the maximum tax deferral period from seven to 15 years. 
Integrity provisions and the up-front $1,000 tax concession for employees who earn less than $180,000 per year (introduced as part of the last reforms to the ESS rules in 2009) have been retained.

As part of this process, the Government has released updated safe harbour valuation tables (used in valuing unlisted rights issued under employee share schemes).  Approved safe harbour market valuation methodologies (to reduce compliance costs in maintaining an employee share scheme and valuing unlisted shares) have also now been released.


Be aware of the following considerations:

Tax liability becomes payable only when exit is possible

An ESS which exposes employees (particularly those of unlisted companies) to material tax costs prior to the employee having an ability to sell the shares are unlikely to be popular.  Although valuation difficulties have all but been removed for ‘start ups’, where the only taxing point is the ultimate share sale, for companies which do not fall within the ‘start up’ concessions it will be important to ensure that employees are not exposed to significant tax costs prior to realisation of the shares.

Aligning employee ownership and corporate control

Private groups should carefully balance employee ownership and incentives against the potential impact of an employee owner exiting the business.  In these circumstances, a robust ESS designed to take advantage of the relevant concessions should also provide a framework that mitigates unintended dilutions of control.

Long-term succession planning

The increased significant ownership and voting rights limitation (from 5% to 10%) now provides some potential for succession planning, where multiple key employees take a 10% interest in the company, with future transfers or exit strategies in mind.

Not a start up?

Deferral is now more generous for rights and options, however full taxation will still arise upon exit of employment.

There are also other alternatives, including loan plans and phantom schemes which may be more appropriate for certain companies to consider.