Mark Leftly: How guerrilla tactics are forcing boardrooms to man the battle stations

Campaigners are carrying on with the legacy of the shareholider spring

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The shareholder spring was, it seems, a bit of a one-off. Any anger over executive pay has failed to spill over from the bloodbath of last year, which claimed the jobs of high-profile City figures such as Trinity Mirror's Sly Bailey (pictured) and AstraZeneca's David Brennan.

However, there is a legacy. Shareholders, campaigners and protest groups have learnt from the events of 2012 how to effectively infiltrate and then use the theatre of annual meetings for maximum publicity, much to the annoyance of boards.

In the past week there were three remarkable examples of how to manipulate what were once dull, straightforward affairs, provided the protesters possess enough fury, determination and organisation. Finally, public companies, that during the boom years were so able to hide in plain sight, are forced to answer tough questions over their business practices and commercial direction.

As we reported last Sunday, the son of the notorious union boss Jimmy Hoffa sent Teamsters to National Express to protest against what it claims are appalling conditions at a US school bus subsidiary, including faulty speedometers and overcrowding. An 80-strong group of Labour MPs were so disgusted by the claims of terrible treatment of American employees that they took the unusual step of writing to shareholders to urge them to vote down the group's report and accounts.

Now there was no chance the National Express board was going to lose that poll, but there was still a near 30 per cent revolt against the remuneration report. In the corporate world where such votes – outside of 2012 – have been a formality, that counts, in boxing terms, as a heavy knockdown.

That vote and negative publicity will surely be enough for the company to review its policies in the US.

The insurer Aviva was unlikely to suffer the pure vitriol of last year, when the chief executive, Andrew Moss, stepped down following one of the biggest shareholder backlashes in corporate history with the majority voting against the pay report.

There were still, though, a chunky 11.7 per cent of votes that went the same way this year. Investors were applauded as they condemned what they considered to be egregious pay-offs for departing directors, while one member of the audience stormed the stage and unfurled a banner stating "Aviva are crap".

The third and by far most entertainingly raucous affair was also the best orchestrated. Hopefully there are no implications for our nation's defence capabilities that a throng of anti-war campaigners managed to seemingly catch BAE Systems unaware of their version of a surge, completely overwhelming the military aircraft and missile manufacturer's meeting at its base in Farnborough.

Issuing dozens of proxy votes, the campaigners pressured the chairman, Dick Olver, time and again to answer questions on why BAE entered military contracts with the oppressive Saudi Arabian regime. The 66-year-old had to be rescued by the chief executive, Ian King, when completely blustering over questions on BAE-manufactured drones and whether the company had drawn up plans to exit Saudi Arabia should tensions ever mount (Mr King confirmed that it had, a perfectly fair answer, easily presented as sensible corporate policy and a straightforward response that, from my perspective, saw his stock soar).

Mr Olver has surely never experienced a more difficult time in the near decade he has led BAE's annual meeting. The stress of the occasion showed, as, after an impressively even-tempered start, he frequently lost his cool and pointed accusingly at several of his inquisitors.

For the first time in five years, Olver even called in security to evict campaigners while they mocked his needlessly provocative references to BAE's business ethics. In a year that saw a failed megamerger with Airbus-maker EADS, threats of shipyard closures and drastically slashed defence budgets, BAE's "real" investors could barely ask a financial or commercial question between them.

Olver leaves the role soon and BAE will surely have to find a more confident, safer pair of hands than his to deal with anti-war protesters who will never go away. Those campaigners won't like this potential development, but hopefully one upshot of this public mauling will be a board much better prepared for these guerrilla tactics.

So, although the shareholder spring in itself arguably failed – bar the odd very high-profile scalp – to curb what the movement perceived to be excess pay in the City, there are signs it was good training for corporate Britain's many enemies. PLC board members everywhere had better shape up.

Forget this flight of fancy

Britain needs a hub airport to make the most of its three global economic advantages: language, location and time zone.

But any suggestion that economic growth is dependent on a bigger Heathrow airport or a new hub elsewhere is wrong. Those three advantages are both fixed and real: overseas investors and businesses will need a UK base, regardless of airport size.