I've held shares in The Company for fifteen years, ever since someone suggested this might be a useful introduction to investment. During this period my shares have nearly doubled in value, and almost halved, and are currently pretty much back where they started fifteen years ago. I have never been tempted to buy any other shares since.
Every year The Company invites me, and all its other shareholders, to its annual Shareholders Meeting. Previously I've not been available at 11am on a Tuesday morning, but this year I think "why not?" It might be really interesting to see how one of these events works, and to share some time with my fellow investors, plus the venue is our National Stadium which I've never been inside before. So this year, yes, I attend.
A couple of thousand shareholders turn up, traipsing a lot further from the nearest station than they'd have liked. Almost all the shareholders are past retirement age, while anyone conspicuously under the age of 40 is almost certainly a member of staff. Beaming employees in white sashes wave us onward towards the bag search under the concrete overpass, then into registration, then up the escalators, then across the landing, then into hospitality.
Inside this featureless space a team of stewards stands poised to pour a cup of coffee or The Company's tea. The tea tastes much like any tea ever served at a corporate event, fresh from a vacuum flask and topped up from a jug of tepid milk. The contents of packets of The Company's biscuits have also been laid out on plates, although only from the more basic range, and absolutely nothing chocolate-coated. Through a locked door the arena of the National Stadium is visible, but none of the grey-haired husbands and wives seem interested, preferring to sit and chat over their free cuppa.
At the appointed time a disembodied voice invites us to ascend one further set of escalators to the Great Hall. This large dimly-lit room, ideal for conferences or cocktails, could be anywhere, with no hint of the vast sporting bowl which lies immediately behind. Several rows of temporary seating fill slowly to a background of instrumental muzak, with one particularly jaunty Mylo track interrupted by recorded advice about fire exits and switching off your mobile phone.
Ten members of The Board then process onto the stage to sit on the leather chair behind their name. Only two of them will speak, while the other eight are present solely for the experience, and to confirm gender and ethnic balance. The running order for the meeting is confirmed, along with the news that this year voting on resolutions will take place during the question and answer session, rather than in a tedious drawn-out palaver at the end.
The Chairman introduces himself and expresses regret that this will be his last AGM after seven years at the helm. He outlines the changes that have taken place on his watch and the challenges of the current trading environment. He praises huge improvements in logistics, customer engagement and the website, and defends the slimming down of the international portfolio. He explains away the negative lines in the first quarter results by reminding us that recent restructuring has been both essential and a one-off. In fact the Company's share price has dropped 4% since trading opened this morning, and has further to fall, but of this there is no reference.
The Chief Executive steps up next and makes reference to the protesters that attendees will have seen outside the venue, before reaffirming The Company's staunchly apolitical stance. He provides an upbeat summary of priorities and actions, drilling down to refreshed colour palettes, multiple store openings and signature food portfolios. He tells the shareholders how much he appreciates their engagement, and introduces a short video to prove his point. His delivery from autocue isn't quite as deft as The Chairman's, but smooth enough, as befits the leader of a blue chip corporation.
It's time to start voting on resolutions, but no hands will be raised or cards employed. Instead each shareholder has been handed a retro Blackberry, along with a sheet of instructions to try to explain which buttons to press, and the device now springs to life awaiting input. Manoeuvring through the menus eventually makes sense, but entering a meaningful response proves unexpectedly difficult. The precise wording of each of the 24 resolutions appears only in an accompanying booklet, in ridiculously small type, which with the lights dimmed is nigh impossible to read. We try our best.
The most memorable part of the meeting is the hour-long Q&A. Shareholders who've submitted a question are invited, sequentially, to step forward to either Question Point A or Question Point B, a bit like being summoned to the counter at Argos. It soon becomes clear that some shareholders are clued up, some are obsessed, some are only interested in the share price, some are attention seekers and some simply don't know when to shut up. Several prove to be repeat offenders from previous years. The next hour proves something of a trial.
Why has someone with no fashion experience been drafted in to run the fashion business? Why does one particular store in the West Midlands have such a poor selection of size 3 shoes? Why continue to give out plastic carrier bags when bags for life could be prioritised instead? Why are all the ready meals now tarnished with chilli? Why can't the AGM go up north for a change? Why did nobody think to run shuttle buses from the station to the venue? Why... I will get round to my question eventually, honest, but first let me drone on making various observations on how I could run your company better.
The Chairman deals with each question fairly and humbly, facing his toughest challenge when a young woman steps up to request that The Company pulls all its advertising from a certain 'hateful' newspaper. Some of the audience get restless when she produces a petition, but The Chairman requests silence so that her voice can be heard. The heckling increases when a second objector has the temerity to raise the same issue, at which point patience starts to decline and several red-faced gentlemen erupt with jeers of indignation. I am not proud to be sitting amongst them.
Eventually the cavalcade of opinion and ego draws to an end, and the Chairman announces that voting is closed. Provisional results show that every resolution has been carried, most by 99-point-something percent, although the Director's Remuneration Report met with some opposition. I'm sorry I'll not see you next year, says The Chairman, but as a treat I've arranged for you all to enjoy a box of my favourite extremely chocolatey dark chocolate ginger biscuits. Thanks for coming, safe journey home, and don't forget to pick up your lunch bag on the way out.
I will not attend the Shareholders Meeting again, despite the free cheese and pickle roll, petit macaroons and box of chocolate biscuits. The opportunity to gain insight into The Company's financial decisions was fascinating, as was the chance to see inside the business end of the National Stadium. But what I'd rather not hear again are the opinionated dullards this open platform event attracts, overshadowing those with something pithy or genuinely challenging to contribute. The Board carry out their AGM duties with aplomb, but must smile with relief when it's all over for another year.