Simon English: Sharman fails as a caring, sharing chairman

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The Independent Online

You seem to have mistaken me for someone who has the slightest interest in your problems. Aviva's chairman, Lord Sharman, didn't say this yesterday, but he seemed to communicate it in every other way. His job at the annual meeting was to persuade an understandably sceptical audience that Aviva isn't run solely in the interests of a small number of vastly overpaid executives.

That it takes its societal role seriously, that it cares about small investors and policyholders.

On this he was, as someone from the floor noted, an abject failure. As a caring, sharing chairman he was unpromising right from the start.

"May I remind shareholders that questions must relate to the business of the annual meeting," he pompously began. "Clearly state your name..."

More than once he tetchily objected to the fair comments coming his way. "I have listened!" he insisted. "I am chairing this meeting, not you," he bellowed. "Next question!"

One poor fellow bravely stood up to say he is owed a pension by Aviva of £6,800 a year, an amount of money so puny to the assembled board they must have assumed he meant "a month" or "a week" or "every day".

He isn't getting even this stipend at the moment due to an administrative error at Aviva. He was at his wit's end. "I need that money to keep me in beer and tobacco," he said. Could someone please help him?

In response, Lord Sharman offered him the advice that it was unwise to spend money on tobacco. He doubtless meant this to be light-hearted, but it just sounded patronising.

Aviva is such an important company in the lives of so many people it really should be more considerate. By common consent at the meeting, its customer service sucks.

If Aviva were ripping off customers but shareholders were delighted, there would at least be one group of winners outside the very top staff.

Aviva would say that corporate pay is a complicated issue. There is no reason why it should be, unless you are engaged in subterfuge. At the moment, this company looks like a fiefdom with little concern for the world around it.

Aviva's customers are prudent, sensible types. They save diligently. They buy shares for the long term. They want to be self-sufficient. All they really expect in return is that life be moderately fair.

The thing is, if Andrew Moss, the chief executive, is at the mercy of markets, then he can't be a brilliant businessman worth £3m a year (and the rest). Any of us can ride a bull market. He's supposed to make it work in the down times.

Mr Moss has had a more than fair crack at running Aviva. Perhaps the question is not, should he go, but why should he stay?