How can state-controlled listed companies make better use of equity incentive plans? Sui Li, Board Secretary, Guangzhou Automobile Group, shares her experience.
Equity incentive plans allow employees to obtain company equity and enjoy economic rights to a certain extent, but they also allow them to participate in the business in the role of company shareholders or partners, who share profits and risks, and contribute to the long-term development of the company.
As an important incentive mechanism for employees, equity incentives are one of the main ways for enterprises to attract, retain and develop talent. They are an effective way for enterprises to obtain high-quality human resources in competitive markets.
As of the end of 2020, a total of 1,819 A share companies have implemented equity incentive plans. Among them, 26.55% chose the stock option method, 64.10% chose the restricted stock method, and 9.35% chose a combination of the two.
In corporate management, we often talk about letting core employees hold stocks, turning the company into a career platform for employees and changing the way in which corporate value is distributed. In the actual process, the company’s implementation of equity incentives must continue to produce effects where employees see actual benefits. So how to make an effective equity incentive plan is a fundamental issue that the company needs to consider when formulating a plan.
Guangzhou Automobile Group was the first large-scale state-owned automobile group in the Mainland to complete dual listing in Hong Kong and the Mainland. We have been exploring ways to improve the company’s medium and long-term incentive mechanisms and, in this article, I will share some practical steps on implementing equity incentives in state-controlled listed companies.
The four stages of equity incentive plans
According to our experience, the steps to achieving an effective equity incentive plan can be divided into four stages: plan decision, design, implementation and optimisation. The main points of each stage are set out below.
1. Plan decision
Decide on the necessity and feasibility of the equity incentive plan, taking into account the company’s current situation, future business planning, performance development level, stock price trend, human resource status, market attention, etc. These factors will directly or indirectly affect the timing of the implementation of equity incentives, award pricing, the scale of the plan, exercise conditions and the probability for exercising the option. Generally speaking, if the company is in a competitive industry, the industry and the company’s business are on the rise, market scrutiny is high, the demand for highly qualified talent is rising and the company’s valuation is low, it is appropriate to implement an equity incentive plan.
2. Plan design
Consider the seven aspects of plan design, namely method, personnel, source, quantity, price, goal and mechanism. This is the most important part of the design and implementation of the entire plan.
Method. At present, most companies use stock options and restricted stocks; some companies also use a combination of options and restricted stocks at the same time.
Personnel. The equity incentives of listed companies must be directed at employees of the listed company and its holding subsidiaries, which generally include company executives, core technology and business personnel, employees who have a direct impact on the company’s performance and qualified foreign employees. Independent directors and supervisors cannot be the target of incentives. The person in charge of a local state-owned enterprise appointed and managed by a higher-level organisation cannot participate. In the case of a joint venture that is an important source of profit for the listed company, the company may apply to the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) to include this type of joint venture in the plan, according to whether there is a policy particularity in the industry.
Source. The source of equity incentives includes issuing shares to incentive targets, repurchasing the company’s shares, and other methods permitted by law and administrative regulations. Generally speaking, when the stock price is lower than the net assets per share, it is recommended to adopt the repurchase method. The source of funds for equity incentives must be legal and free funds, and listed companies should not provide any form of financial assistance.
Quantity. The total number of underlying stocks involved should not exceed 10% of the total equity and for STAR market companies the number should not exceed 20%. The company’s stocks granted through all equity incentive plans within the validity period must not exceed 1% of the total share capital of the company.
Price. The exercise price of stock options should not be lower than the par value of the stock and should not be lower than the higher of the following prices: the average trading price of the company’s stocks on the trading day before the draft equity incentive plan is announced, or one of the average trading prices of the company’s stocks 20, 60 or 120 trading days before the draft equity incentive plan is announced. The restricted stock grant price should not be lower than the par value of the shares and should not be lower than the higher of the following prices: 50% of the average trading price of the company’s stocks on the trading day before the draft equity incentive plan is announced, or 50% of one of the average trading prices of the company’s stocks 20, 60 or 120 trading days before the draft equity incentive plan is announced. If the fair market price of the state-owned listed company’s stock is lower than the net assets per share, the restricted stock price should not be less than 60% of the fair market price.
Goal. The incentive plan should adopt a two-tier evaluation system: the company-level performance evaluation and the individual-level performance evaluation. Among them, performance indicators can be roughly divided into comprehensive indicators, growth indicators and enterprise operation quality indicators, which are determined by the enterprise according to its own situation.
Mechanism. Mainly includes exercise unlocking arrangements and personnel exit management mechanism. Current regulatory policy has clarified that the waiting period/restriction period for the implementation of equity incentives for state-controlled listed companies is two years in principle, and the options will be exercised/unlocked in batches of at least three years at an even pace, that is, the 2+3 model. But the company can apply to SASAC to make slight adjustments according to the actual situation, such as adopting the 3+4 model, or the 3+3 model.
3. Plan implementation
According to the current policy, whether for central enterprises or local state-owned enterprises, the approval process of all companies’ equity incentive plans is roughly the same, based on the principle of ‘the one who invests to approve’. It includes ‘making plans, pre-communication with SASAC, internal decision (locking price), formal report to SASAC, approval and reply from SASAC, general meeting of shareholders (final approval), board of directors (grant), registration and deposit exercise/review of exercise/unlocking conditions, exercise/unlock’.
Among these, A+H share listed companies need to pay special attention to three points set out below.
Before announcing the equity incentive plan, it should be submitted to the relevant stock exchange for preview. If the equity incentive plan adopts restricted stocks, and involves related transactions between directors, executives and the company, the company needs to hire an independent financial adviser for H shares to provide formal views which shall be issued together with the general meeting circular.
In principle, the implementation of equity incentives in A share companies should be subject to the regulatory rules of both Hong Kong and the Mainland at the same time. However, due to differences in the listing rules relevant to A share and H share companies, individual provisions of the equity incentive plan might not meet the rules of the two places at the same time. The company shall communicate in advance with the regulators in both Hong Kong and the Mainland.
Do a good job in shareholder communication and explanation before the general meeting of shareholders. Because H class shareholder’s interests can differ greatly from those of A class shareholders, the equity incentive plan must be approved by the company’s shareholders’ meeting as well as the A/H class shareholders’ meeting. It is suggested that listed companies should do a good job in shareholder identification and investor communication in advance, obtain the understanding and support of shareholders and investors, and hire relevant professional institutions to assist if necessary.
4. Plan optimisation
Do a good job in market and peer tracking, equity incentive exercise data analysis, effect evaluation, etc. Summarise problems and experience in preparation for the new equity incentive plan.
Sui Li, Board Secretary
Guangzhou Automobile Group
- 价格：股票期权行权价格不得低于股票票面金额，且不得低于下列价格较高者：股权激励计划草案公布前一个交易日的公司股票交易均价；股权激励计划草案公布前20个交易日、60个交易日或者120个交易日的公司股票交易均价之一。限制性股票授予价格不得低于股票票面金额，且不得低于下列价格较高者：股权激励计划草案公布前一个交易日的公司股票交易均价的50%；股权激励计划草案公布前20个交易日、60个交易日或者120 个交易日的公司股票交易均价之一的50%。国有控股上市公司股票公平市场价格低于每股净资产，则限制性股票授予价格应不低于公平市场价格的60%。