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Sue Wilson.

Byline: By Sue Wilson

The little old man in a raincoat arrived early, took his seat quietly, clutching his tightly zipped document case on his knees and settled in for the wait.

One hour later, with the hall full and some eloquent cabaret coming to an end, he judged the moment was right and launched his attack, springing to his feet in one vicious movement. His victim was caught off guard and spun round in abject horror at the ferocity of the assault. A terrorist plot? A contract killing? No, it was Norman Know-it-All, aggrieved individual shareholder, back for question time at the annual general meeting.

These days chairmen suffer sleepless nights in the run-up to that most terrible of ordeals, when they are required to face their public and possibly explain everything from human rights in the Third World to the justification of their own existence. Institutional investors who wield the greatest power are often not the ones causing stress. It is the nutty small shareholder on a mission whom they dread and they are very much aware that they will be judged on their ability to handle the situation. Effective public relations is crucial. Handle it too briskly and they will be thought pompous and arrogant. Let it continue too long and their chairing skills will be thought lacking. Shareholder activism is the new industrial unrest.

Some people don't know when they are well off. To complete an annual general meeting in less than half an hour would seem an impossible dream for most PLCs. Since shareholders started getting spiky, expediency has become the goal, refreshments have been reduced, gifts cut out and speeches made as inclusive and endearing as possible to try to avoid the pitfalls of this necessary evil. But while most chairmen pray for a silent and speedy end to the annual general meeting, it appears some feel aggrieved if shareholders don't wish to go for the jugular.

"Have you any idea how much preparation we did to make sure that we had succinct and coherent answers to every conceivable question you might have?" thundered Alun Cathcart, chairman of Selfridges, when the 84 shareholders present remained resolutely quiet at question time. Clearly he felt there were things to discuss. Like the recommended pounds 600m cash bid for the company by Galen Weston. Or whether Bernie Ecclestone would launch a counter-bid. Or the planning problems surrounding the redevelopment of the flagship Oxford Street store. Or even the flagging margins of the business. The team had worked hard to be ready for this apathetic lot and questions were expected.

Now had he been Sir Christopher Hogg, chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, he might have felt differently. Sir Christopher faced a shareholder revolt on executive pay.

He was accused of reticence on HIV drugs by Aids organisations, pressed on the price paid for blackberries to make Ribena, told the non-executives were too old and even had his grammar corrected by a lady from Wales.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 26, 2003
Previous Article:From the floor.
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