Monday 5 April 2010

The art of the AGM

Like most things, company Annual General Meetings are not what they were. However, this is probably a genuine improvement.

Traditionally, boards sparred with their shareholders for a few minutes, then took themselves off to a private room for a long, booze-fuelled lunch with their advisers. As an adviser who always enjoyed a drink, I found this reasonably agreeable, though it is hard to deny that it was an egregious waste of time.

The funniest AGM I ever attended was one held by Brooke Bond at the CafĂ© Royal in the early 1980s. I think they must have employed the famous PG Tips chimps to set up the public address system, because it deafened the audience with horrific feedback until the chairman ordered that it be turned off. Whereupon it began playing, at top volume, an apparently unstoppable recording of the previous year’s AGM.

I had taken with me a young graduate trainee who was rendered literally helpless with laughter. Eventually she asked, between sobs of mirth, whether all AGMs were as funny as this. It was my painful duty to inform her that this was sadly not the case. Most were enlivened solely by the chance to observe the outrageous behaviour of hungry and thirsty freeloaders whose ages, clothes and accents all suggested that they should know better.

In the early 1990s an entrepreneur friend of mine floated his business on the stock market and prepared for his first AGM with his customary attention to detail. First he chose a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Yorkshire, and a 9.30 kick-off that held out no promise of free food or drink. Then he asked his advisers to prepare a comprehensive brief covering every possible difficult question he might be asked.

The one shareholder who actually turned up naturally raised an issue that did not feature in the script. But luckily all was not lost. Along the table my chairman friend could see a non-executive director, who had himself chaired a successful public company for many years, hastily scribbling a note. He waited for it to be passed along the table and looked confidently at his questioner as he prepared to read out the words of wisdom it contained: “Tell him to [expletive deleted] off.”

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant who has not attended an AGM for a while.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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