Unanimous Shareholder Agreements

What is a Unanimous Shareholder Agreement?

Corporate statutes in Canada[1] provide that a corporation’s default position is to be managed entirely by its directors and officers. This situation can be reversed through the use of a unanimous shareholder agreement (“USA”), which restricts the power of the directors to manage the corporation and instead transfers additional authority to the shareholders. All of the shareholders must agree that they desire to enter into a USA.

Why is a USA useful?

A USA is particularly useful for a closely held start-up company to establish the rules for governing and managing the corporation. The USA will provide mechanisms for resolving deadlocks and govern any transfer of shares. Clarifying expectations between shareholders at the initial stages of organizing the company can be the best way for the corporation to avoid drawn out and expensive disputes in the future.

What are the drawbacks?

Shareholders may become subject to the liabilities normally assigned to directors and officers to the extent that the USA removes powers and responsibilities from the directors and gives it to the shareholders. Protection from liability for shareholders is an important factor in deciding to incorporate a business in the first place. Consequently, any loss of that protection should be carefully weighed.

Typical USA Contents

USAs typically address a number of key measures that are designed to ensure a fair outcome for all parties involved during the course of the corporation’s existence:

  1. Dispute Resolution: Consideration can be given as to how deadlocks amongst shareholders can be resolved. The dispute resolution process may be limited to mediation or binding arbitration, which can be a less expensive alternative than seeking restitution through the courts. Shareholders may also wish to consider whether one of them should have a tiebreaking vote or a veto over certain actions.
  1. Unanimous Shareholder Approval: In the case where one shareholder owns the majority of shares, it is important to consider whether any issues exist that should not be decided by a simple majority vote. A USA can set out a class of material decisions which require supra-majority and/or unanimous shareholder approval to ensure that the majority stakeholder is not able to make unilateral decisions without first obtaining the consent of the other stakeholders involved.
  1. Share Transfer: A USA typically contains a primary rule that no shares can be transferred without the receiver of the shares becoming a party to the USA. This primary rule can be supplemented with a number of additional mechanisms to promote liquidity of the shares:
  • Right of First Refusal: A shareholder who receives a bona fide offer from a third party to purchase his or her shares must first allow the existing shareholders the right to match such offer prior to selling to any third party. This mechanism allows the existing shareholders the option to prevent a third party purchaser from becoming a shareholder and exercising control over the corporation in the future.
  • Buy/Sell or “Shot Gun” Provision: This provision allows one shareholder to offer the other shareholders a price and establish the terms under which he or she is prepared to either purchase the other shareholder’s interests or sell his or her interest to the other shareholders. It is then up to the other shareholders to decide whether they wish to either buy the offered shares or sell their own shares on the same terms and conditions presented. This provision can be very useful in the event of a shareholder dispute where the relationship between the shareholders has broken down and one party wishes to exit.
  • “Piggyback” or “Tag-along” Provision. If a shareholder is able to sell shares to a third-party, a piggyback or tag-along allows the non-selling shareholders to include their shares in the agreement with the third-party buyer. In other words, a shareholder could tag along with the seller and exit the corporation.
  • “Drag-along” Provision. If a majority shareholder decides to sell its shares it can require the minority shareholders to sell their shares to the buyer as well. This allows a majority shareholder to exit the corporation without a minority shareholder blocking the sale.
  1. Funding Considerations: A corporation requires access to capital both upon incorporation and during operation. A USA can prescribe how such capital can be obtained and ensure that each shareholder contributes the requisite amount in conjunction with his or her interest in the corporation or face a penalty for failure to do so. In the case of debt financing, a USA can prescribe how guarantees are to be signed and provide for the sharing of liability among shareholders.

There are several other matters that a USA can address depending on the needs of an organization. We are always happy to discuss how a USA may be of value to your corporation, and answer any question you may have.

Additional Reading:

Canada Business Corporations Act: Unanimous Shareholder Agreements

Chapter 8 – Organizing Your Corporation: The Shareholders

[1] In particular, the Business Corporations Act (Ontario) and the Canada Business Corporations Act