1998 Telegraph series - preview of week six

By Stephen Mayne
January 17, 2008

Week six of the 1998 AGM season starts today and business editor Stephen Mayne previews the action.

Most of the action is in Sydney for week six of the 1998 annual meeting season with insurers, cinema companies, retailers and health care providers up before their shareholders.

Woolworths should attract up to 1000 shareholders to the Sydney Town Hall this morning to hear about another stellar performance from Australia's second biggest retailer.

Now Woolworths has a partnership with the Commonwealth Bank to offer financial products in its supermarkets, shareholders could justifiably ask whether their chairman, John Dahlsen, should remain on the board of rival bank ANZ. Executive shuffling at the top will no doubt also be raised, with shareholders likely to give outgoing managing director Reg Clairs a glowing send off.

While Woolworths is meeting its shareholders, rival Coles Myer will be relaunching its flagship Sydney Grace Brothers store after a $350 million refurbishment. Managing director Dennis Eck and most of the board will then be back in Sydney for Thursday's annual meeting at Darling Harbour.

Given that Coles and Woolworths shares have both rocketed over the past 12 months, neither company can expect too much grief.

However, as they relentlessly take market share from their smaller rivals, Australia's two retail giants could face questions from aggrieved smaller industry players.

Gerry Harvey has even threatened to turn up at the Coles Myer meeting and ask why they moving to compete directly with his Harvey Norman furniture super stores.

Coles and Woolworths both have July 31 balance days so we are now getting to the last of the June 30 annual meetings.

GIO Australia was originally scheduled to meet with shareholders last month but delayed the meeting and rewrote its annual report after AMP launched its hostile $3.1 billion takeover offer. The rewrite made the outlook for GIO look a lot more rosy after a $189 million loss on its reinsurance business in 1997-98 sent the group plunging to a shock overall loss of $27 million.

New American chief executive Nick Steffy could also face a backlash on his proposed 4 million options which are exercisable at $3.96 and get paid out in the event of a takeover. No doubt outgoing chairman Stan Howard, the elder brother of the Prime Minister, will point out that the options were agreed before AMP's bid was launched. With GIO shares finished at $5.13 on Friday, a $4.68 million profit for four months work is good going in anybody's terms.

I will be asking questions at GIO and also attending the annual meeting of rival insurer FAI on Wednesday and then Hoyts later that day and Amalgamated Holdings on Thursday. In what should be the last FAI annual meeting, shareholders will farewell Rodney Adler who sold 15 per cent of the company to suitor HIH for 75c cash.

The rest of us shareholders are resigned to taking mainly HIH scrip which has not done overly well in recent months. Hoyts has turned out to be one of the biggest dogs in my portfolio as its share price has plunged from a recent high of $3.10 in January to a low of just $1.28 last month.

Chairman David Gonski will have some explaining to do, despite the shares bouncing to $1.55.

Rival cinema group Amalgamated Holdings fronts its shareholders on Thursday, clashing with the Coles Myer meeting. Controlling shareholders Alan Rydge keeps a low profile running some highly successful businesses including the Rydges hotel chain, Greater Union cinemas and Thredbo ski fields.

After breaking through $7 in January, Amalgamated's share price has taken a battering this year hitting a low of $3.40 in October before bouncing back to $4.06 on Friday. Even so, it has rocketed from an equivalent of 46c in late 1990 and remains a truly great business success story, despite a difficult 12 months.

The other low-profile Sydney Rich List member fronting shareholders this week is Paul Ramsay, who controls Ramsay Healthcare and Prime TV.

The only substantial AGM in Melbourne is Mayne Nickless tomorrow, where the board will probably bask in the glory of the expected strong Optus debut today. Chairman Mark Rayner and managing director Bob Dalziel finally will be able to focus on growing its healthcare and logistics businesses without the distraction of a 25 per cent stake in Optus. Shareholders are promised a $1 capital return from Optus proceeds, which they need to approve at the meeting.

Qantas continues its habit of shifting its AGM around, gathering with shareholders in Brisbane on Wednesday, after going to Perth last year.

The national airline has arguably had its most successful year ever in 1997-98, weathering the Asian crisis remarkably well thanks to its ongoing cost cutting program and market share growth. Shareholders should be offering far more bouquets than brickbats at the Qantas board, which remains stable under the solid leadership of chairman Gary Pemberton.

Rene Rivkin can show he is not an AGM truant by attending the meeting of mineral sands explorer Redfire Resources in Sydney today.

* Stephen Mayne has bought shares in 50 companies for this series.

Today: Woolworths, Adsteam Marine, Brian McGuigan Wines, Development Capital of Australia, Redfire Resources: Sydney. Clough: Perth.
Tomorrow: GIO Australia, Ramsay Healthcare, Australian Consolidated Invest: Sydney. Mayne Nickless: Melbourne. Cash Converters: Perth.
Wednesday: Hoyts, FAI Ins, Prime TV, Climax, Cultus: Sydney. Qantas: Brisbane.
Thursday: Amalgamated Holdings, Coles Myer, Charters Towers Gold: Sydney. Ross Mining: Brisbane.
Friday: Nothing significant.