Embattled communications and advisory firm Teneo Global LLC’s new chairwoman, Ursula Burns, has experienced first hand what it is like to be targeted by an activist investor.
Burns, the first African American to run a Fortune 500 company, was installed on the communications firm’s board on Tuesday, July 6. Her appointment emerged after the firm’s chairman and CEO, Declan Kelly, on June 29 announced that he had resigned from his position at the company following what he said was an “inadvertent, public and embarrassing mistake” at a charity event in May.
Kelly, who co-founded Teneo in 2011, said he took full responsibility for reportedly misbehaving with women while drunk at an event hosted by advocacy organization Global Citizen.
In a statement Burns said she will focus on improving culture and advising and growing Teneo’s clients. The communications and consulting firm advises corporate CEOs and companies on proxy battles, environmental, social and governance considerations, diversity and inclusion issues, restructuring and political and policy risks.
In 2015, when Burns held the position of CEO of Xerox Corp., (XRX) she was targeted by Carl Icahn. In January 2016, two months after Icahn launched an activist campaign, Xerox agreed to install three dissident directors and break into two publicly-traded companies. In May, 2016, Xerox announced that Burns would step down from the CEO role upon the completion of the split. According to relationship mapping service BoardEx, a sister company to The Deal, Burns resigned from the Xerox CEO position in December 2016 and later, in May 2017, she left the company’s chair position.
Xerox retained Teneo as a client prior to Icahn’s campaign, but it also advised Burns amidst the insurgency.
Separately, Burns holds a position as an incumbent director at Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) She and other directors were targeted by an ultimately successful ESG-focused campaign launched by upstart activist Engine No. 1 LLC. The activist fund succeeded at installing three of four dissident director candidates to the board of the energy giant in a contest that focused partly on the insurgent investor’s push for renewable investments.
Burns emerged from that campaign mostly unscathed. Of all the incumbent directors up for election, she received the third most votes for— receiving about 2.8 billion votes in favor and only 61 million votes against. Three incumbent directors were removed from the board in the contest.
In recent years, Burns has been an adviser to Teneo, providing advice and information about her experience at times to executives facing activist campaigns. She is expected to continue to provide similar advice in her role as chair.
Burns was appointed to the board of Uber Technologies Inc. (UBER) in 2017 after the then-private ride-hailing company’s CEO Travis Kalanick abruptly resigned amid allegations that sexual harassment was running rampant at the company. She continues to hold a board seat at Uber, which IPO’d in 2019.
—Nikitha Sattiraju contributed to this report.