NEW YORK — Few had heard of Engine No. 1 until it shocked corporate America this year by pushing Exxon Mobil to revamp its board of directors, in part to focus more on clean energy. Now it’s bringing its active-ownership approach to the world of stock index funds, which sit at the heart of most investors’ retirement accounts.
Yasmin Dahya Bilger is head of exchange-traded funds at Engine No. 1, whose ETF began trading in June under the ticker symbol “VOTE.” It owns 500 of the largest U.S. stocks, from Apple to Zillow, and says it will hold them accountable by engaging with their executives and voting at shareholder meetings.
Many stock funds say they do the same thing, of course, and some charge even lower fees than Engine No. 1’s. Bilger talked about how her fund is different and how more investors are choosing to take environmental, social and governance issues into account in hopes of the best long-term returns. This conversation has been edited for length and for clarity.
Q: Is Exxon the template for what Engine No. 1 will try to do with other companies? Shake up the board to get change going?
A: With the Exxon campaign, people like to call us activists. We like to call ourselves active owners.
There’s a wide toolkit to engage with companies. One is activism, and frankly we hope to use that tool the least. What we’re focusing on now is more collaborative engagements, working with managements to work toward key environmental and other decisions to drive shareholder value.
Q: And you’re trying to do that with all 500 companies in the ETF?
A: We’re trying to focus on several key themes that we think are important and a small set of companies where we think can move the needle.
We think that there is a great long-term shareholder value case to make for key environmental and social issues. What that means is we’re only going to be engaged in places where we think we can make that strong deep economic argument.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: We’re working very closely with the management of General Motors on their long-term goal to electrify their auto fleet. We’re hoping to help them champion what their strategy is and really give them the language they can use with their stakeholders, including their shareholders, to continue with that plan.
Q: Should investors expect to see change as big and as quickly as it came about with Exxon?
A: Markets are so short-term in nature. This is a long-term view. Many of these things — like a focus on the environment, net-zero targets or diversity in the workforce — they work with shareholder value. But it’s about that long-term view. A lot of what we’re doing has a long cycle towards it.
Q: You want the ETF’s investors to be excited about how their votes are cast at annual shareholder meetings. What if one believes nuclear power is helpful for the environment, while another hates it? Do they get a say?
A: There’s a lot happening in this space about how to engage best with shareholders and get their feedback. A lot of startups are trying to tap into that energy and feedback. Realistically, we certainly want to have a pulse on our investors. What we want to focus on is transparency.
Most shareholders don’t even know that as shareholders, they have a vote, and they have a voice. And they also don’t know how their votes are being cast. A person who invests in our fund will understand the stance we’re taking on a certain topic.
From an end investor’s point of view, (reports detailing how funds at annual meetings) come out in very long shareholder reports at the end of the year. A drive toward real-time disclosure is really important and something we want to be the tip of the spear on.
Q: Because the ETF tracks an index, its performance shouldn’t differ much from the broad market’s. How should investors be scoring you at home?
A: This space, the ESG space, is very inaccessible to the average investor, and it’s because we speak in jargon and create big yearly reports that nobody can read and comprehend. What’s really important is the storytelling aspect of what’s actually being done. One of the most important things for me is how we’re communicating that to investors.
Q: Should we expect your fund to vote very differently than the big index funds at shareholder meetings?
A: Historically what you’ve seen from large passive providers is they tended to vote against environmental shareholder proposals. Now that’s changing. This year, there’s been a demonstrable increase in support for a lot of these proposals, particularly on climate. But I think there’s a long way to go.
We hope to be the tip of the spear on this topic, bringing these issues to light to the mainstream. Only recently has this concept of shareholder voting gotten the spotlight put on it.
Q: The stereotype of ESG investors is that they’re younger, they’re women, they’re more diverse. Is that the case?
A: ESG may have historically stayed in certain corners. That’s because a lot of the conversation was on the ideology or morality of ESG investing. What you’re seeing more recently is we’re making a really strong shareholder value argument for investing in this space. I think that widens the net to who’s actually interested in coming with us and participating.