What are alphabet shares?
Alphabet shares provide businesses with an alternative way of raising equity finance as their company begins to expand and more shareholders join the company. A company that is limited by shares will have been set up with a nominal number of ordinary shares in issue.
Alphabet shares allow the business to effectively assign their shareholders with shares in different classes, and these separate share classes are identifiable by a specific letter (hence the term ‘Alphabet Shares’). For example, this could mean that the company has categories of shares such as “A” Ordinary shares”, “B” Ordinary Shares” and so on.
The use of alphabet shares could help a business to pay shareholders different amounts of dividends depending on what class of share they own. Alternatively, alphabet shares are used in companies owned by families or in joint ventures so as to give certain shareholders power to make important decisions (for example to appoint a director).
Something important to note here is that if your company’s articles of association do not identify what rights are attached to each different class of share then they will rank pari passu with one another – meaning they all rank equally.
This could lead to shareholders becoming unhappy as a situation could materialise where one shareholder who owns a class of shares that represent a minimal amount of money could be entitled to the same dividend rights as another shareholder who owns a class of shares that represent a significant amount of money.
To avoid this, ensure that your company’s articles of association are amended via a special resolution of the shareholders so that the rights attaching to each different class of share is added. Once this has been done, one rate of dividend can be paid to the shareholder(s) owning “A” Ordinary Shares” and a different rate can be paid to the shareholder(s) owning “B” Ordinary Shares”.
Such an amendment to your company’s articles is essential in order to circumvent the ‘model article’ and ‘Table A’ provisions that demand dividends be paid in proportion to the number of shares held. Unless otherwise stated in the articles of association, in relation to all other rights such as voting and rights to capital on a winding up, the different classes of shares will usually rank equally.
How do you set up alphabet shares?
Typically, the process involves:
- The company creating a new class of shares (or classes of shares);
- Setting these new classes of shares out in the company’s Articles of Association;
- Ensuring that these new articles detailing the new share classes are adopted by special resolution (this can be a written resolution);
- The company deciding (once the new share classes have been created) to either allot new shares of the classes concerned or have existing shares converted to the new classes;
- Both directors and shareholders considering and approving the changes to the company’s articles; and
- Sending notices of the statutory forms and resolutions to Companies House.
If allotting new shares, the procedure laid out in the Companies Act 2006 should be followed. This means that a board meeting should be held to approve the decision to allot new shares, and minutes of that meeting must be kept. What then follows are events such as the issuing of share certificates, completing a return of allotment on Companies House Form SH01 and updating the company’s statutory books (i.e. the register of members and register of allotments).
A more in-depth procedural analysis is set out below:
Step 1 – Directors hold first board meeting
- Here the directors will decide to create the new share class or reclassify existing shares.
Step 2 – Directors send out notice of General Meeting (‘GM’)
- Directors must pass a resolution at a board meeting to call a GM and must give all shareholders notice of the general meeting. If they do not do this any business conducted at that meeting will be invalid.
- Such notice must be given at least 14 ‘clear’ days before the meeting is to take place (unless the short notice procedure has been complied with).
Step 3 – Obtain shareholder resolution
- An ordinary resolution will be required if there is to be any alteration to the company’s share capital.
- A special resolution will be required where the company has had to amend its articles of association in order to create the new share class(es).
- The Companies Act 2006 requires shareholder resolutions to be filed within 15 days from the date of passing the resolution.
Step 4 – Directors either reconvene first board meeting or hold second board meeting
- This meeting should record the final action taken by the company for example if share capital has been used or if any allotment/transfer of shares has taken place.
Step 5 – Complete and send off Companies House forms
- What forms will be involved will depend on the nature of the transaction that has taken place.
- For example, if new shares have been allotted then Companies House Form SH01 would be used or Form SH02 if shares have been consolidated or sub-divided.
- Forms SH08 and SH10 may be used as well during the process.
What is the process for implementing an alphabet share scheme and what risks are involved?
An alphabet share scheme involves employees being offered shares in the company that employs them and are paid a portion of their remuneration by way of a dividend. Such a scheme is tax efficient (for reasons mentioned below) and can help incentivise a workforce to improve a company’s profitability.
The scheme could be set up so that each employee in a given department are given designated classes of shares – for example those in the HR department could all be given “A” Ordinary Shares” while those in the Sales department could be given “B” Ordinary Shares” and so on. In smaller workforces, each employee could be given their own letter.
The way that such schemes are normally implemented is by offering the shares to employees and making them redeemable at par / nominal value so as to make sure they can be easily recovered from the employee once their employment with the company ceases.
If your company is relatively small and you only wish to allow a few employees to benefit from your scheme, then the best way to implement this would be to allow those select employees to take individual ownership of the relevant shares. If your company is larger or you want to allow all employees the opportunity to benefit from the scheme then you could grant employees ownership of their shares via a trust.
One of the risks involved with implementing an alphabet share scheme is the way HMRC views such arrangements and how closely they look at such schemes. HMRC are keen to look at the substance of such schemes so as to assess whether they are set up for legitimate reasons or simply set up for the purpose of avoiding tax such as PAYE and National Insurance contributions (‘NIC’). With that being said, HMRC have said that they will not launch attacks on alphabet share structures so long as there is no contrived arrangement to avoid tax or NIC.
The reason why HMRC has such concerns is because of the appealing nature of dividends when compared with other forms of remuneration. When it comes to tax, individuals do not pay NIC on dividends, whereas they do have to pay such tax on their salary income.
Alphabet share schemes came under scrutiny following the PA Holdings case (Revenue and Customs Commissioners v. PA Holdings Ltd) where HMRC ended up winning their case against that company.
The case involved the company paying bonuses to their employees by offering them shares and paying them dividends on those shares. PA Holdings contended that this income received by employees was not employment income and therefore not liable to NIC.
HMRC disagreed and argued that the dividends in actuality were simply bonuses and were therefore liable to NIC. The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal agreed with HMRC which has led to speculation in various forums as to whether this decision could signify the beginning of the end for alphabet share schemes.
It remains to be seen how wide-reaching this decision will be, however, as this case involved a highly contrived scheme that was set up purely for tax avoidance purposes. It is now just a matter of time to see whether HMRC will be looking to extend the outreach of the principle established in the PA Holdings case beyond the facts that were then involved.
Additionally, s.447 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 (ITEPA 2003) states that where an “associated person” (i.e. an employee of a company) receives a benefit (i.e. a dividend) by virtue of the ownership of employment-related securities, then the taxable amount counts as employment income of the employee for the relevant tax year. This provision is therefore always something to consider when thinking of implementing an alphabet share scheme.
Before launching such a scheme, it would therefore be prudent to seek professional advice so as to be sure that the scheme will not be breaching any tax or other regulatory