Beware the wrath of shareholders
As Tesco's AGM today marks the anniversary of Lord MacLaurin's outburst against his successor, Alex Lawson highlights some of the best investor showdowns in recent years
Friday 27 June 2014
Livelihoods, pensions and nest eggs can dwindle in the blink of an eye in the world of stocks and shares.
So it's perhaps unsurprising that companies' annual general meetings – at which shareholders large and small have the right to vote on pay and appointments and address management – frequently become outlets for those left out of pocket by underperforming firms to vent their spleen or make a stand.
The supermarket giant Tesco will host its meeting in London today, marking a year since its former chairman Lord MacLaurin shocked onlookers with an extraordinary outburst against Sir Terry Leahy, who led the retailer from 1997 until 2011 when he handed the reins to current incumbent Philip Clarke.
Lord MacLaurin claimed Sir Terry had "lost the plot" investing in the company's international arm and, in particular, his US venture Fresh & Easy to the detriment of its UK business which Mr Clarke has since battled to turn around.
Although Lord MacLaurin told The Independent he does not intend to attend this year's meeting, investor ire is never far away from such occasions, as a look at shareholder showdowns in recent years quickly reveals.
A long-standing critic of current Morrisons boss Dalton Philips, Sir Ken Morrison, who built up the supermarket, branded Mr Philips' strategy "bullshit" in a statement as fresh in the chief executive's mind as the manure in Morrison's bull field he was comparing the Irishman's turnaround plan to.
The mining giant's new chief executive Sam Walsh faced a string of angry investors as he defended its strategy, including questionable investments in Canada, Mongolia and Africa and the $14bn (£8bn) writedown which led to his predecessor Tom Albanese's resignation.
"To suggest, as you did in your opening statement, that you are doing well when your sales are down and you've made a resounding loss is, I suggest, outrageous," one irate shareholder said.
April 2013 & April 2014
Barclays' AGMs have not been sedate affairs in recent years as much of the banker bashing has been borne by the banking titan.
In 2013, 75-year-old Joan Woolard labelled the bank's chiefs a "bunch of crooks" and dubbed them "greedy bastards". April's event on London's South Bank was no less eventful, with shareholders who had passed swathes of protesters outside rewarded with a good chuckle at an investor who said Barclays were paying Premiership wages but getting a lower division performance. "We're paying for Manchester United but we are getting Colchester United," the shareholder quipped.
World Development Movement campaigners set up a Carbon Bubbles champagne bar, serving oil from champagne bottles outside HSBC's AGM at the Barbican Centre, London, last year. Accused of an array of ills, including supporting tax havens, laundering Mexican drug cartels' money and desecrating forests in Sarawak and Borneo, the bank was blasted by attendees, most notably broadcaster and environmentalist Bill Oddie.
"There has been no mention of the environmental damage [deforestation] is causing to wildlife habitats. That is a major crime, and HSBC has been financing that crime," Mr Oddie said.
Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer's AGMs are famed for their docile nature and tasty sandwiches but a savage attack on non-executive director Steven Holliday shook up the annual gathering.
Brigid Barker was thrown out of the meeting amid audible gasps after she verbally attacked Mr Holliday, also National Grid's chief executive, claiming he had destroyed her daughter Laura's career. Ms Barker claimed Mr Holliday had "used his power to control her job and destroyed her career when she could no longer meet his sexual demands".
The orange airline's founder and largest shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, blasted the company's dealings at its headquarters in Luton. Speaking via a spokesman at the height of the 2012 Shareholder Spring against pay, the company's colourful creator dubbed the process "a sham", claiming the board had "bought" shareholders' votes with its promises to reconsider the return on capital employed method used to decide directors' pay.
The broadcaster's executive chairman Michael Grade faced Monty Python-esque criticism from those who believed he'd been a very naughty boy after joining from the BBC. Enraged investors lamented that he had never had to deal with shareholders at Auntie Beeb and said he had caused underperformance at ITV. "When you were hoisted into the job, it was like the Messiah had landed. The share price at the time was about £1.20. Now it's 30p," said an outraged shareholder.
Royal Dutch Shell
The oil titan faced one of the biggest City rebellions on record as pay plans were voted down and fires were lit by angry protesters outside the meeting.
Standard Life's head of corporate governance Guy Jubb said he was "dismayed" by the size of Shell's outgoing chief executive Jeroen van der Veer's pay packet, and another shareholder declared: "This gravy train has got to stop. The board should very carefully consider whether it is living in cloud cuckoo land."
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