Insults fly at Hanson meeting

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The slick triumphalism of Hanson's annual meeting yesterday blew up in the conglomerate's face as a constant barrage of heckling reduced the AGM to a farce. From the moment Lord Hanson bounded, breathlessly, onto the stage at London's Barbican Centre, vulpine smile from a giant screen, the meeting was reduced to an acrimonious slanging match.

The unexpected appearance of an elegantly-coiffed Roger Moore, regally acknowledging applause for the latest Hanson TV ad in which he stars, added to the ludicrous spectacle. But as the more squeamish shareholders called for a team of burly boucers to unhand one particularly agitated woman it became clear this was shareholder anger in the British Gas league, even if the reason for the outrage never fully emerged.

North American Indians, environmentalists, women - all had their vociferous say in Hanson's most chaotic meeting. Bizarrely, the radical dismemberment of the Hanson empire was mentioned only in passing as the annual meeting as a sensible talking shop joined the idea of the conglomerate on the scrap heap.

A day after the carefully timed announcement of Hanson's four-way split ("hung, drawn and quartered", one of the less hectoring shareholders remarked), such a theatrical celebration was always likely to be a high-risk PR strategy. When your business includes open-cast mining on Navajo homelands and the manufacture of cigarettes and chemicals, a certain amount of confrontation is to be expected.

Already feisty, the sizeable minority of hecklers among the 2,000 or so packed into the meeting treated a saccharine video about Hanson's relationship with its "friends and business partners" in Arizona with the contempt it probably deserved. For one long-standing shareholder the video was a red rag to a bull: "That PR film was an absolute disgrace".

Her view was probably shared by a dignified delegation from the Navajo and Hopi tribes, whose sacred lands they claim Peabody Coal is desecrating, and there was a strange historical irony in a North American Indian woman intoning a prayer for the souls of the gathered blue rinses from Harrogate.

Even Lord Hanson, smooth as silk for most of the turbulent 90 minutes, lost his rag at one point: "Oh, for God's sake, why don't you belt up."

Considering the constituency he was addressing, the ribald response to Lord Hanson's reference to non-executive director Kenneth Baker's "distinguished record in Parliament" was telling. But it didn't prevent the chairman's fullest explanation of the morning: why Hanson would continue to contribute pounds 100,000 a year to the Conservative Party's coffers.

"Conditions have improved constantly for companies and individuals under 16 years of Conservative government - regardless of all this wittering I shall continue."