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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peter C. Clapman, reformer who helped change the way corporations do business, died of complications of covid-19

HANDOUT:Peter Clapman, shown with his wife Barbara, in November 2020. He quietly changed the way American corporations do business. Clapman, as senior vice president and chief investment counsel at TIAA, became instrumental in using the power of institutional investors to push for ethical changes in corporate governance, said John H. Biggs, TIAA’s former chair and chief executive. Clapman died Feb. 9 of Covid-related complications at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was 84.(Photo by Leah Clapman)
HANDOUT:Peter Clapman, shown with his wife Barbara, in November 2020. He quietly changed the way American corporations do business. Clapman, as senior vice president and chief investment counsel at TIAA, became instrumental in using the power of institutional investors to push for ethical changes in corporate governance, said John H. Biggs, TIAA’s former chair and chief executive. Clapman died Feb. 9 of Covid-related complications at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. He was 84.(Leah Clapman)
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Peter C. Clapman helped changed the way American corporations do business, and he did it using the corporate equivalent of the ballot box.

Clapman, as senior vice president and chief investment counsel at retirement and investment firm TIAA, became instrumental in using the voting power of institutional investors to push for ethical changes in corporate governance, said John H. Biggs, the company’s former chair and chief executive.

Beginning in the 1980s, Clapman’s campaigns helped redistribute power from the executive suites to every company’s rightful owners — its shareholders. He also put pressure on companies to diversify their corporate boards by adding more women and people of color and to develop more environmentally friendly and ethical investment tools.

“Peter was a true pioneer and absolutely unique in doing this,” Biggs, 84, said in an interview.

Clapman died Feb. 9 of covid-related complications at Suburban Hospital. He was 84.

“I consider Peter Clapman one of the saddest losses because it happened so near the end of the pandemic,” Biggs said.

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In 2002, Clapman testified before the House Financial Services Committee about corporate practices that doomed energy company Enron, and he helped establish the first corporate governance code in China. The International Corporate Governance Network, which Clapman had chaired, called him a “giant in the world of corporate governance.”

When he wasn’t pushing corporate reforms, Clapman helped raise two daughters, rooted for the New York Jets and enjoyed cooking, especially if the dish had anything to do with meat, his family said.

Clapman acquired high moral standards from his father, a big-hearted eye doctor who had been born into an immigrant Orthodox Jewish family and who prized honesty above all, said daughter Leah Clapman, 50, managing editor for education at PBS NewsHour.

After excelling at Stuyvesant High, Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Clapman joined what was then TIAA-CREF, which started out as a small firm handling retirement funds and insurance needs for teachers and college professors. The company, which changed its name to TIAA in 2016, now manages more than more than $1.3 trillion in assets.

Clapman’s campaign against self-serving executive practices began in the early 1980s with a fight against the “poison pill.” Companies used the maneuver to thwart unwanted takeover attempts by driving up the cost to the buyers.

Clapman was among the first to recognize these tactics protected bad or inefficient management, Biggs said. So he enlisted the simple power of the proxy, by which an institutional investor often votes on behalf of their many shareholders to change a company’s bylaws.

With TIAA’s backing, Clapman also led a high-profile uprising against Disney’s powerful chairman and chief executive, Michael Eisner, over his compensation. Clapman and others argued that the Disney board members who had approved Eisner’s lavish pay were too close to him and therefore created conflicts of interest.

Twelve of 16 members of Disney’s board had close personal or professional ties to Eisner, including his children’s former elementary school principal, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time. The consultant who recommended Eisner’s compensation package also happened to be his personal lawyer — all things Clapman and other institutional investors saw as deeply wrong, Biggs said. The campaign succeeded.

“Peter was the architect,” Biggs said.

At Clapman’s urging, TIAA also helped create investment funds that sought to do good, not just make money, Biggs said. The movement, which began by avoiding investments in tobacco stocks, has evolved to include options that are more eco-friendly companies or focus on sustainability.

Clapman retired in 2005 after 32 years at TIAA. In 2015, Clapman and his wife, Barbara, moved to the District to be near their daughters.

“He was very family-oriented,” said his daughter Alice Clapman, 44, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood. “He just loved spending time with us, and it didn’t matter what we were doing.”

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