Tag Archives | virtual-only

Conoco Virtual Only Meetings Targeted

Conoco’s virtual only annual meeting is the target of a shareholder proposal by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. A similar proposal was filed at Comcast. The Conoco resolution has already been cofiled by the Church of the Brethren Benefit Trust and the Needmor Fund, a Walden client.

As responsible shareholders, we believe good corporate governance includes the opportunity for shareholders to meet face-to-face with the company’s Board and management at the Annual Shareholders Meeting.

Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management stated

The decision to move an annual meeting to cyberspace has moved far beyond a minor internal management decision and become an important governance matter for companies. Imagine if companies facing major controversies had decided to forgo physical meetings. If a company faces debate on their comp package or its climate change position or has votes on shareholder resolutions it is also a problem to have a disembodied discussion on line for a  stockholder meeting.

For more views, see Nuns tell companies to get real over virtual AGMs @FT and In Depth: Growth in Virtual-Only Meetings a Concern for Institutional Investors @ Chief Investment Officer.

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Virtual Meetings: Can Shareholder Proposals Stem the Tide?

virtual meetingsVirtual meetings are quickly being adopted by entrenched boards who fear any attempt by shareholders, especially retail shareholders, to hold them accountable. Annual meetings are the only place shareholders are likely to meet with the managers and boards of the companies they invest in, as well as with employees of those companies and with other shareowners. Comcast (CMCSA) spins their May 16 meeting as one that “will provide expanded shareholder access and participation, improved communications and, over time, cost savings for our shareholders and company.”

Virtual Meetings: The Liecomcast

If their real concern was to please their shareholders, Comcast would hold a hybrid meeting — allowing shareholders to attend in person or via the Internet. Don’t let them fool you, Comcast is locking out its shareowners to avoid embarrassing questions and accountability, not to reach out and communicate with their shareholders or to save a few dollars on coffee or a room rental. Shareholders are not clamoring for virtual-only meetings. The Council of Institutional Investors ($3 trillion in member assets) maintains a policy favoring hybrid meetings but clearly opposes stand alone virtual meetings:  Continue Reading →

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Symantec Reverses Course: Won't hold a Virtual-Only Meeting Next Year

As reported earlier (See Protesting Symantec’s All-Virtual Annual Meeting, 22 Sep, 2010) Symantec Corporation set the pathetic precedent of being the first Fortune 500 company to hold a virtual-only annual meeting without shareowner-approved safeguards to protect participant rights. That happened September 20, 2010. But two weeks later, Symantec has backed down. Responding to a letter writing campaign organized by the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX), which received national media attention, Symantec announced they will not hold a virtual-only annual meeting in 2011. Reuters broke the story.

This wonderful news came on the heals of shareowners’ success convincing Intel to scrap plans to hold a virtual-only meeting in 2010. Intel held a hybrid meeting instead.
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Symantec Audio-Only Meeting Gets National Coverage

At last, there have been a couple of articles in the national press on the Symantec Corp. virtual-only meeting. First, Ross Kerber reported for Reuters, Shareholder meetings via Web mute dissident voices (9/24/2010) Kerber observed,

Soon movies might be the only place to hear pointed outbursts from investors. This year more than a dozen companies moved their annual meeting to online-only settings where they can rephrase or ignore contrarians.

Bruce Herbert, Steve Schueth, U.S. Proxy Exchange, CalPERS and CalSTRS were mentioned as opposing the move. Symantec claimed the fact that it included a pointed question on its performance during the online meeting, provided evidence it wasn’t stifling dissent.

Then on 9/26/2010 the New York Times published Gretchen Morgenson’s Questions, and Directors, Lost in the Ether.

Unlike other companies that broadcast video along with audio, Symantec held its meeting as audio-only — making it impossible for investors to observe the goings-on or see which Symantec executives had decided to make themselves available.

Symantec management read and answered only two questions from shareholders and failed to answer a question from Bruce T. Herbert, chief executive of Newground Social Investment. Morgenson also quoted several Symantec shareowners who were displeased with the audio-only meeting and she focuses on the fact that not all Symantec directors “attended,” although she was unable to find out who the missing directors were.

Morgenson mentioned the recent shareholder forum by Gary Lutin.

PARTICIPANTS in the forum have proposed these standards of fairness involving electronic shareholder meetings: a company should provide all shareholders with a reasonable opportunity to ask management questions relating to director elections and other matters to be decided at a meeting; a company should present those questions or views to management publicly so other shareholders can consider them; and, finally, a company should generate responses to these questions from managers or directors so other shareholders can consider them as well.

Morgenson ended her article with important observations from Lutin.

Most corporate managers also like being able to learn what interests their shareholders so they can respond before decisions are made. But it’s important to be alert to abuses that hide questions. If you want the marketplace to work, investors need to see which managers deserve their support.

Not mentioned in the article is the fact that Glyn Holton, of the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX), initiated the protest against Symantec. USPX appears to be on the threshold of building on the work of Lutin by

drafting a white paper detailing the legal, technology and procedural issues raised by virtual meetings. That will be followed with a members forum through which shareowners will draft shareowner-approved guidelines for the conduct of virtual meetings. Find out more and how you can be involved on our Virtual Shareowner Meetings page.

Long-term, we cannot address the issue of virtual meetings one company at a time. There are approximately 13,000 annual meetings in the United States each year. At some point, the trickle of corporations experimenting with virtual meetings will become a torrent. We need a comprehensive solution.

To that end, the USPX has formed the Coalition to Preserve Shareowner Meetings to pursue a two-pronged strateg:

1. Hold an on-line forum to draft shareowner-approved minimum guidelines for the conduct of virtual and/or hybrid meetings, and

2. Agree to sanctions the shareowner community will impose on corporations that conduct virtual meetings not in accordance with those guidelines.

Aside from Gary Lutin, members of the Social Investment Forum and public pension funds have mostly taken the lead in this area. We need others, especially retail shareowners to step up to the plate. I hope readers of CorpGov.net will join in those efforts by sending concerns and advice to [email protected]. I encourage individual shareowners, institutional shareowners and interested parties to join this newly forming coalition to participate in the forum and other activities. Join the USPX today. Member dues are modest and fund important activities.

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