Norwegian fund backs Exxon management in proxy fight with hedge fund

BOSTON, May 21 (Reuters) - Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said on Friday that it plans to vote for Exxon Mobil’s board directors but wants the company to split the chairman and CEO roles, largely backing management in a hotly contested corporate battle with a small hedge fund.

The battle, set to be decided when investors vote on Wednesday, is among the first to have turned concerns about climate change into a key factor for choosing directors.

Norges Bank Investment Management, one of Exxon’s top 10 investors with a 0.94% stake, detailed its intentions in a table on its website on Friday.

It is backing 11 of Exxon’s 12 directors but is withholding its vote for Exxon’s chief executive Darren Woods, arguing that as CEO he should not also be chairman of the Exxon board.

“The roles of chairperson and CEO should not be held by the same individual,” the fund said. “The board should exercise objective judgment on corporate affairs and be able to make decisions independently of management.”

The fund and Exxon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The vote results will end one of the year’s most hotly contested proxy contests in which newcomer hedge fund Engine No. 1, with roughly $250 million in assets, took on $249 billion Exxon and asked shareholders to elect four newcomers to the board.

The hedge fund is pushing for improved financial performance and a greater focus on clean energy at Exxon and has successfully turned concerns about environmental, social and governance concerns into a key issue in this fight.

A number of big investors, including two California pension funds, have said publicly that they are backing the hedge fund’s nominees, arguing that fresh directors who have more energy industry expertise are needed to help the oil giant adjust its business model.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Will Dunham