U.S. Markets

Proxy solicitor Okapi hires Harnett from Strategic Governance Advisors

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Okapi Partners, a proxy solicitor that has long worked for activist hedge funds Elliott Management and Starboard Value, is hiring a senior executive from an advisory firm to help expand its business with corporate clients, three people familiar with the matter said this week.

Okapi, which specializes in guiding clients through shareholder votes on proxy contests at companies like Campbell Soup CPB.N and planned mergers like this year's Bristol-Myers Squibb BMY.N takeover of Celgene, recruited Mark Harnett, an industry veteran, to join later this month.

Harnett,60, most recently worked at public relations firm Sard Verbinnen & Co’s corporate governance advisory unit, Strategic Governance Advisors, which was launched by former Institutional Shareholder Services executive Chris Cernich in 2016. Harnett’s last day at Strategic Governance Advisors was Thursday. He joined Sard’s public relations business in 2015.

The bulk of his career was spent counting votes in corporate battles at MacKenzie Partners, the proxy solicitor he co-founded with Daniel Burch in 1992. He worked there until 2015.

After a few years of advising corporate clients on how to engage with activist investors, Harnett was ready to return to his roots and the nitty-gritty work of vote counting, the sources said.

Okapi was founded by Bruce Goldfarb and Patrick McHugh, who worked together at proxy solicitor Georgeson Inc., at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 when activism was finding fresh traction. The firm has a reputation for working with activists like Elliott and Starboard but it also has other types of clients such as mutual fund firms.

Since its founding, pressure from activists on companies has steadily increased. Last year, for example, was a banner year for activists who put more capital to work than ever before, targeted a record number of companies and won a record number of board seats, data from Lazard show. While many activists lost money last year, their returns have largely rebounded this year with a handful including Pershing Square Capital Management, ValueAct Capital, Trian Fund Management and Starboard Value posting double digit returns in the first half, according to investors.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by David Gregorio