Part Β΄: Claim for a buy-out by the Majority Shareholder(s)
It is redundant to say that in any country that respects its laws, the principle of freedom of contract stands strong. In Greece, this principle is introduced in our legal system in article 361 of the Greek Civil Code (: “For the establishment or modification of any legal obligation a contract is required, unless the law provides otherwise”). This principle is based on article 5 paragraph 1 of the Greek Constitution, which refers, amongst other things, to the [right to] economic freedom.
Specific aspects of the principle of freedom of contract are the freedom to enter (or not) into an agreement, as well as the freedom to choose what said agreement (should one choose to enter into one) will provide.
According to this, no one is obligated to enter into an agreement (even more so in a predefined one), unless a specific law “provides otherwise”.
Respectively, when it comes to S.A.s, no one is obligated to buy the shares of any minority shareholder -especially when the latter’s share is so small that it has no real value in terms of assisting to the formation of the so needed majority. In this case, it is highly likely that nobody will be interested (or nobody will let show they are interested) to purchase such kind of a minority shareholding.
Amongst his other quotes, the actor and director Clint Eastwood has infamously said that “if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster”. If the minority shareholder decides that their investment is not profitable or even problematic, they cannot just simply return it for a refund: shares are not toasters. Shares are not covered by guarantees, as are toasters.
A safe assumption could be that, at least at a first glance, no one can be obliged to acquire a minority share package, unless some specific requirements are met…
There has already been a reference to the legal claim a minority shareholder may have against the company, for the latter to buy them out, as well as all the relevant requirements and procedures (read related article). In this article, we will mainly focus on a minority shareholder’s possible claim against the majority shareholder to buy them out.
2. The right of the minority shareholders to request a buy–out by the majority shareholder
The requirement for the minority shareholding to be holding shares that do not exceed 5% of the total of the company’s shares
In the case of a private S.A., (as far as public S.A.s are concerned, the rules of public offerings apply, supplemented by the Greek law of S.A.s) the main requirement is in regard of the percentage of the minority shareholding. The Greek law of S.A.s (article 45 paragraph 1 of law 4548/2018) is strictly limited to shareholders holding a maximum of 5% of a company’s shares. This percentage is calculated as a percentage of the nominal value of the shares the minority shareholders hold on the overall total of the total nominal value of all the shares of the company. It is irrelevant whether a shareholder is holding 5% or less of the ordinary or of the preferred shares of the company. Only the percentage of the company’s shares held matters.
Furthermore: Minority shareholders holding a percentage higher than 5% of the company’s shares are not entitled to require a buy-out by any shareholder. Not even for a sum of shares equaling to less or up to 5%.
This provision seems fair. Most of the minority rights recognized under Greek law are recognized to the minority shareholders that are holding more than 5% of a company’s shares. If a shareholder is not holding 5%, their protection seems, and is, extremely limited.
The requirement for at least 95% of the company’s shares to be held by one (?) shareholder
The majority shareholder -of 95% or more, a percentage gathered after the company was set up- has (originally) the obligation to buy-out the minority shareholder. In case the minority shareholder accepted at the stage of the very establishment of the company that they would have a percentage lower to 5%, the law assumes that they also consciously accepted that they would have limited protection under the law. Because of that assumption, Greek law has chosen not to “force” the majority shareholder to buy-out such a minority shareholder.
It is noteworthy that in calculating the required 95% of the shares held by the majority shareholder, one must also count in the shares held by the parties related to them. The legal entities characterized as “related parties” to the majority shareholder and whose shares are considered as shares of the majority shareholder when calculating the percentage of shares the latter is holding, are identified as such by article 32 of law 4308/2014. The persons characterized as “related parties” to the majority shareholder and, again, whose shares are considered to be shares of the majority shareholder when calculating the percentage of shares the latter is holding, are identified as such by Appendix A of the aforementioned law. To be more precise:
Regarding the related parties that are legal entities, article 32 of law 4308/2014 is extremely detailed. It is redundant, in the context of this article, to get into great detail. One general rule that would be useful to keep in mind is that related parties are generally considered to be the parent company and the subsidiaries of the majority shareholder or of a company that is related to the majority shareholder. It should also be noted that those legal entities that choose to or legally have to prepare consolidated financial statements with the majority shareholder or with related to the latter legal entities are also related parties to the majority shareholder.
Annex A of law 4308/2014 instructs us in counting in shares held by natural persons- members of the majority shareholder’s close family- when calculating the latter’s share over the company. According to this law, such persons are the majority shareholder’s ascendants, descendants, spouses, and live-in partners.
The right given to the minority shareholder (holding a 5% or less of the company’s shares) to request a buy-out is subject to a five-year limitation period. This five-year period starts the moment the majority shareholder (along with their related parties) is holding at least 95% of the company’s shares. After the lapse of this five-year period, the aforementioned minority shareholder no more has the right to request a buy-out by the majority shareholder holding 95+% of the company’s shares.
The shareholder obligated to buy
Article 45 of law 4548/2019 refers to the obligation of the majority shareholder to buy-out the minority shareholder holding less or equal to 5% of the company’s shares. As already stated, in calculating the majority shareholder’s share over the company (in order to determine whether they are holding 95% or more) one must also account in the shares held by related parties of the shareholder (legal entities or members of their family). In case there actually are related to the majority shareholder parties holding company shares, one should take it as a given that the related parties will be obligated to acquire the shares sold by the minority shareholder analogically to the company shares they hold prior to the buy-out. It goes without saying, these related parties will have to pay for the shares they are acquiring, at the price determined by the competent court. This approach seems the only logical one since anything else would disturb existing balance amongst the remaining shareholders.
The procedure leading to the buy-out
The minority shareholder that wishes to be bought-out has to submit the relevant request to the competent court (article 46 par. 2 and article 46 par. 4 of law 4548/2018). The latter will rule whether the requirements set by the law are met. If the minority shareholder’s action is upheld, the court will rule on a just and equitable price per share, as well as on the specific terms the buy-out will be implemented. In order to determine the price per share, the court will take into consideration the value of the company. In this case it is more than fair (as well as allowed by law) for a report to be requested by an independent expert regarding the value of the shares sold; In most cases, the independent experts that will provide said report to the court will usually be either two chartered accountants or an audit firm. This independent expert report will evaluate the arguments made by the opposing parties.
3. In conclusion
The protection offered to the minority shareholder holding a percentage of less than 5% of the company’s shares is extremely limited by law. To counterbalance this extreme risk exposure (and in contrast to the right to economic freedom and the principle of freedom of contract, as they are both stated and protected by the Greek constitution) the above-mentioned minority shareholder has the right to request to be bought out from the company by the company’s majority shareholder of 95% or more.
The law does not force S.A.’s shareholders to notify the moment the percentage either they or their related parties hold over the company’s shares reaches or exceeds that of 95%. As a result, the minority shareholder has to be alert as for when their rights kick in, otherwise said minority shareholder on the one hand risks to miss their opportunity to exercise their rights to be bought-out altogether, on the other to fail to achieve a good price for their shares.
As for the majority shareholder, they have every reason to avoid holding 95% of the company’s shares. If they succeed in doing so, they will be able to enforce onerous terms on the minority shareholder while negotiating a possible buy-out of the latter. Such a negotiation could easily start by reminding the minority shareholder of the infamous abovementioned quote by Clint Eastwood…
P.S. A brief version of this article has been published in MAKEDONIA Newspaper (May 12th, 2019).