Power to the people

Managements differ greatly in their attitude to private shareholders, writes Ken Welsby. Some look after them, offering discounts, providing a regular flow of information and laying on a good lunch at the annual meeting. Others appear to ignore the fact that the shareholders are their bosses, regarding them as a nuisance.

Abbey National, for example, with more than half its stock in private hands, sets great store on making information accessible, setting a standard that other mutuals converting to quoted companies might be hoped to follow.

Some of the privatised utilities on the other hand have been accused of riding roughshod over individual shareholders - British Gas comes to mind - though one, at least, is taking a different tack.

At last year's annual meeting of National Grid, which has more than 1 million private shareholders, David Jefferies, the chairman, offered them a chance to take part in a two-day fact-finding visit. It is believed to be the first time a UK company has organised an event of this scale for private investors.

This month 26 of them visited sites, including the National Grid Control Centre, the research and development centre and the company's telecoms subsidiary, Energis, where they met directors and senior managers. They were then asked to report their findings to an independent research company and a discussion session was chaired by Emma Kane, head of investor services at ShareLink, the "dial and deal" execution-only stockbroking firm. A report will be included in the next annual report and presented on video at the annual meeting.

Mr Jefferies said: "This visit has provided us with a valuable insight into the issues which are of most interest to them,'' and the lessons should help Grid to improve its service to private shareholders, who account for 14 per cent of the equity. The investors who took part all said they now understood the company and its strategies better, and almost half said they were likely to raise their stake. They also suggested other companies should copy this initiative.