James Moore: Another candidate for a kicking at the Pru
Friday 11 June 2010
Outlook It seems that barely a day goes by without one shareholder or another coming out and calling for heads to roll at Prudential in the wake of the £450m the insurer wasted on its failed attempt to buy Asian insurer AIA.
The storm whipped up by Monday's bruising annual meeting – when one small shareholder described the company's recent conduct as "a disgrace" to loud applause – has yet to abate. That's not least because Prudential doesn't appear to see that it has a problem. Which raises questions about just what James Ross, the senior independent director, is doing.
The role of the SID was created because it was felt that company chairmen were all too easily prone to losing their objectivity and turning a tin ear to their shareholders at times of corporate strife.
The SID should, in theory, provide a conduit through which shareholders can give vent to their concerns when this happens. There were a few protests when the idea was floated – lots of hand wringing about what a dreadful slur such a suggestion was on "honourable" company chairmen and women and how it could create friction in the boardroom – but the concept appears to have worked well in practice and is now a well established part of the British corporate scene. Until now.
When a fund manager like Schroders feels the need to go public with its discontent, a company has a problem. The latter is no headbanger, quite the reverse. It is one of those that usually only puts its head above the parapet when it is seriously unhappy. That shows the scale of the difficulties Prudential is now facing. Something is clearly going badly wrong with the way the company is communicating and managing relationships with its shareholders. Mr Ross, a former chief executive of Cable & Wireless, therefore has some serious questions to answer.
Because what's really disturbing about what is happening at Prudential is that this company is a major institutional shareholder. Its fund manager, M&G, tends to maintain a studied silence when companies in which it invests, have issues. Perhaps we now know why. If Prudential can't get its own house in order how on earth can M&G lecture other companies on good corporate practice.
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