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INSIDE TRACK: AGMs are not always rubber stamps for the board

ONE attendee at BP's annual gathering last week had an unusual motivation.

"My doctor told me to go into the meeting and ask a question," he told the oil giant's directors and the hundreds of shareholders gathered in the cavernous Excel Centre in London.

Having suffered a stroke, his physician wanted him to regain confidence in his speech by questioning some of the most powerful people in global the industry.

The reasons for people attending company annual meetings are varied: duty, a free lunch, perhaps, even, mental stimulation.

But the events form an important, if sometimes deeply tedious, part of the financial journalist's calendar.

Some annual meetings are very lively indeed.

Those attending BAE Systems' event are usually greeted outside by giant puppets paraded by anti-arms trade demonstrators and impassioned arguments inside.

On occasion, they are almost party-like. Marks & Spencer attracts hundreds of people to its gathering in the Royal Festival Hall where shareholders are plied with food and drink before being shown the retailer's latest ranges.

Contrast this to the muted atmosphere at the Halifax Bank of Scotland meeting in Birmingham in 2008 that approved the company's capitulation to a rescue takeover by Lloyds TSB and a state bailout.

Many events have a slight whiff of Pyongyang about them, with brusque dismissals of dissenting voices and a roll-call of 99% of votes in favour of management resolutions.

On occasion a company will seek to bar the press from these meetings, a practice that is almost always counter-productive because we will inevitably know someone inside who will tell us what happened. It also draws attention to the matter - invariably executive pay - that they are attempting to obscure.

The events throw up their own minor celebrities. You can anticipate a collective groan from the media benches when the ubiquitous John Farmer stands up at company meetings in London.

But you will find many of us quoting him in articles because while his perorations can be extraordinarily long, they are well informed and often brutally cutting. North of the Border, the likes of John Cruickshank and Mary Mackenzie have kept generations of Scottish executives on their toes.

Annual investor meetings can produce real change. The campaign for a living wage has been boosted by the number of wealthy executives left squirming when the pay rates of their own staff has been revealed. Now major companies like Barclays are committed to paying wages that are sufficient to live off.

Despite the odd controversy, such as 2012's Shareholder Spring rebellions on pay, large shareholders are usually invisible at these events.

Standard Life Investments of Edinburgh is a rare example of a fund manager who, now and again, speaks out publicly.

It is time the others followed the lead Britain's fearless band of private investors, and held our corporate chiefs to account

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