As they have done for the past few years, Intel Corp. hosted a hybrid shareowner meeting today, allowing shareowners to attend in person or via the Internet. This meeting was important because Intel had planned to make it a virtual meeting, hosted exclusively on the Internet. A strong reaction from shareowners prompted Intel to back down for this year, but this may be just a one-year reprieve. As the same technology used for today’s hybrid meeting would be used for an exclusively virtual meeting, we had today a glimpse of what a virtual Intel meeting might be like. (see Intel Virtual Mtg Out for 2010 But Exploring Future with USPX)
Broadridge provided the technology, and the meeting was hosted on a Broadridge website. Shareowners accessed the meeting using the same 12-digit control numbers they use to vote shares on-line through Broadridge’s proxyvote.com website. Since it is unclear how a competing technology provider might authenticate sharewoners, Broadridge is poised to monopolize the market for virtual—and even hybrid—shareowner meetings.
In the days leading up to the Intel meeting, shareowners were welcome to post questions to an “Investor Network” website that is in beta testing by Broadridge. Many questions were posted and Intel staff answered a number of them on that same website prior to the meeting. Intel represents that questions posed over the Internet during the meeting, if not answered during the meeting, will be answered on that website. The process appears manual. I tested the system by posting a question during the meeting. It was not answered during the meeting, and an hour after the meeting, it had not appeared on the Investor Network website.
The meeting itself was a typical shareowners meeting. It lasted just 40 minutes, with the chair and CEO fielding questions while the polls were open. It was professionally run and actually one of the better shareowner meetings I have recently participated in. Despite the availability of access via the Internet, about twenty-five shareowners attended in person. Many corporations that don’t offer Internet access fail to get that number.
Questions from the audience were mostly interesting. Two individuals praised the hybrid format while arguing that an all-virtual meeting would not be good for shareowners. In response, chair Jane Shaw said no plans have been finalized as to whether Intel will go all-virtual in 2011 “or beyond.” She declined to endorse criticisms of an all-virtual format, which suggests there is still interest in going all-virtual.
As feared, Broadridge’s technology largely reduces shareowners to a spectator role. I routinely speak out at shareowner meetings, sometimes to ask questions, but also to address procedural errors by the chair, which are common. No such opportunity existed with Intel’s meeting today. You can shout at your computer screen, but it won’t do any good. The user interface is dominated by a small video of the meeting. There are links to the proxy materials, meeting rules and a few other documentations. You can click on a button to fill in your ballot at any time during the meeting up until the polls close. There is also a small window for typing in a question. The brevity of the meeting and the fact that the chair appeared to read Internet questions from a sheet of paper suggest that Internet questions were pre-selected from questions submitted in advance of the meeting. In summary, there appears to have been no means for shareowners participating via the web to participate during the meeting. Other than filling out the ballot, our role was entirely passive. Neither before, during nor after the meeting was there any mechanism for shareowner-to-shareowner communication.
Needless to say, there will need to be improvement before shareowners can support corporations in hosting all-virtual meetings. The United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) is spearheading shareowners’ response to the opportunities and risks virtual or hybrid meetings pose. We will be hosting a deliberative conference this November in Boston at which shareowners will set guidelines for the conduct of virtual meetings. Intel has already committed to participate in that conference, and I invite all institutional and retail shareowners to join us as well. Details about the conference will be announced in a few weeks. To receive that announcement, please e-mail me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Publisher’s note: Thanks to Glyn Holton for this guest commentary and for his good work at the USPX. Guest posts on substantive corporate governance issues are always welcome. Contact James McRitchie.)
While I understand the need to engage managers and directors in a traditional corporate forum where there is some fleeting accountability to a company’s owners, it strikes me that the annual meeting has become an anachronism that is perhaps no longer relevant. Like so many other forms of communication, I suspect that the virtual meeting will overtake brick-and-mortar events. As companies adopt these new solutions, shareholders must also respond with new ways of engaging company officers and directors on important issues using social media tools and other online communication tools.
The annual meeting has gone the way of a long-running play. We’ve all seen “Pirates of Penzance” but do we want to watch it again? Executives, for the most part, are scripted and have their lines down. While the annual meeting might be cathartic for a few shareholders, at the end of the day, has anything changed?
I appreciate the thoughtful comments, especially coming from you. I love what you’re doing at the ProxyAnalyst.com web site. I still have hope that more annual meetings can become deliberative bodies again, as a very few are… mostly involving buyout or contests. Lewis Gilbert used to have thousands of proxies assigned to him, so that when he attended meetings and asked questions the dialogue was important. There are some signs of revitalization… but yes, virtual meetings are likely to become much more popular so it is critical that shareowners help shape how they are conducted.