Haunt of freeloaders, worshippers and the ordinary

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The Independent Online
I WONDER if Desmond Morris was at the British Gas AGM on Wednesday. There can have been few better opportunities to research a new work called Shareholderwatching. But he would have to point out that the gas bust- up was very much the exception. Most AGMs are love-ins, peopled by a number of well-known types.

Just in case Morris was not there, Dr Desmond Bunhill has produced his own brief categorisations. First, we have the Freeloader, whose aim is to have a jolly good day out at the expense of the company.

Freeloaders' shareholdings are concentrated on food and drink companies, and their astonishing ingestive abilities recently persuaded the London brewer Young's to stop doling out free bitter at the annual get-together.

Second is another kind of serial AGM-attender: the Interrogator. This shareholder often has a foreign accent and takes annual reports to bed and spends many hours looking for apparent discrepancies in the small print. He or she has shares in many different companies and loves making lengthy speeches at AGMs, always finishing with a baffling technical question. If the directors cannot answer it, then such a shareholder awards himself or herself 10 points and considers the day well spent.

Next, the Worshipper. One example will give the idea. A few years ago Sir Ralph Halpern, chairman of Burton, had been caught leaving undone those things he ought to have done up, and sharing the experience with a Miss Fiona Wright. Burton's shares, however, were doing nicely (it was the '80s, remember), and one gentleman wanted to put Sir Ralph in his proper historical context. "I consider," he told the AGM, "that after Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Ralph is the greatest Briton this century."

These three groups, all of whom tend to be elderly, will often gang up on the fourth type - the lobbyist. A Navajo Indian was brought across to a Hanson AGM by an environmental group (he lived on land a Hanson company was digging up). He made a speech but was then told in no uncertain terms to shut up - not by the noble lord but by groups one, two and three.

Two final types are notable more for their absence than their presence at annual meetings. First the Pinstripe, the pension fund manager who owns most of the shares but has better things to do than sit through an AGM. The port served at them, the Pinstripe believes, is distinctly inferior.

Last and usually least, the Ordinary Shareholder. A rare visitor to the AGM but when present - as Mr Brown and his less than merry men have just discovered - there is a terrifyingly good reason.

IS BUNHILL alone in believing that one of the most intriguing things about British Gas is that it is run by someone called Cedric? A quick search on my library database shows that Mr Brown has done remarkable things for the profile of the name. Of the 845 Cedrics mentioned in the last year, 716 were Mr Brown. Here are some more Cedric facts:

q The name is a spelling mistake. It was invented in 1819 by Sir Walter Scott and given to Cedric of Rotherwood, the eponymous hero's dad in Ivanhoe. He probably meant to call him Cerdic, a Celtic form of Caractacus. According to Scott, Cedric "was powerfully built, like one accustomed to endure the fatigue of war".

q The head of Nissan a while ago was a Scott fan, which is why most Tokyo taxis used to be called Cedric - it is now the name of a rather flashy saloon.

q According to the Guinness Book of Names, Cedric is now popular only among black Americans. Its image was mauled elsewhere in the anglophone world by that well-known sissy Cedric Errol, Little Lord Fauntleroy. There is, however, a French tennis player called Cedric Pioline.

q There was a White Star liner called Cedric. The vessel was in the same fleet as the Titanic.

q More recently, and statistically improbably, another FT-SE 100 company had a chief executive called Cedric: Scroggs of Fisons. He was sacked.

Where there's Muk... NOW HERE is a man who has more luck - in a place where luck counts. Mike Ryder-Richardson has been sent to Hong Kong as marketing director of Jardine Unit Trusts. His name, transliterated into Chinese, is Muk Hi-Dah. That translates back into English as "possessor of morality". Handy for a man in personal finance.

HERE is a new game. Compare and contrast the Swatch pager, launched last autumn, and the Benetton pager, launched last week. First the difference: the Swatch is also a watch; the Benetton is just a pager. Next the similarities: they are both being sold as fashion accessories, which means they are both brightly coloured and designed to be seen rather than hidden.

More importantly, they both use the same system - invented by BT - which works on numbers, rather than words. If you want to leave a message, you ring a number and key in a code, which is deciphered by the recipient using a code book.

But this brings us back to the differences. The Benetton codes are quite other from those used in the Swatch. If you happen to get your code books mixed up, you could cause havoc. For example, 220 in Benetton-speak means "Where are you?", but to a Swatch-owner it means "You're fired". And 111 means either "Help" or "Thanks for the call", while 601 means "Happy birthday" or "Don't be alarmed".

Some of the mismatches are almost plausible - 611 means either "It's late, come home" or "Was at hairdressers".

Confusion aside, I rather like the "memorable" codes Benetton offers. These include 1402 ("I love you"), 666 ("I hate you"), and 007 ("It's a secret"). Do I detect hidden sponsorship in 205 ("car") and 1664 ("Fancy a beer?")? Peugeot and Kronenbourg should own up.

Bottom of the barrel

A GENTLEMAN told me a story last week to make you view your bag of crisps with renewed respect. Some years ago, he worked for a company that made flavourings. His office was two-thirds of a mile from the factory, but one day he and his colleagues were overcome by a vile smell from the other site. The cause: a cheese flavouring had eaten its way right through the steel barrel it was stored in.

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