November 29, 2016 / 4:40 PM / in a year

Sard Verbinnen taps ex-ISS executive Cernich for new group

(Reuters) - Public relations firm Sard Verbinnen & Co said on Tuesday it will launch a corporate governance advisory business with Chris Cernich, a former top executive at proxy advisor Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS).

The creation of the new group, Strategic Governance Advisors, signals that Sard Verbinnen, one of the industry’s best known crisis communications firms, is entering the fast growing business of advising corporations on corporate governance issues ranging from how much they pay their chief executives to how much cash should be on the balance sheet.

A host of companies are feeling pressure from activist shareholders, including such well-known investors as Nelson Peltz, Carl Icahn and William Ackman, who often wield outsize power even though they own only a small percentage of shares.

Six months earlier Sard agreed to sell a piece of itself to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital and is seeking to diversify its offerings in areas of consulting beyond financial communications and investor relations.

It also clears up some mystery surrounding Cernich, who had weighed in on some of America’s most contested mergers and proxy contests at ISS, and left the firm in September. Since his departure, Wall Street had been speculating whether he would join a hedge fund or a bank or even a corporate board.

Cernich declined to comment further about his new venture.

Joining Cernich in the new group will be Mark Harnett, who joined Sard in 2015 and was previously a co-founder and president of proxy solicitor MacKenzie Partners, and Amy Bilbija, a former shareholder activism defense banker at investment bank Evercore Partners Inc.

The new team will begin work in January 2017 with offices in New York and San Francisco.

Corporations typically hire lawyers and public relations specialists after an activist investor showed up. This group, however, will also work with companies to review their business before an activist arrives.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in New York; Additional reporting by Michael Flaherty in New York

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