1998 Telegraph series - wrap of week four

By Stephen Mayne
January 17, 2008

This summary of the week's AGM action was first published in The Daily Telegraph on November 14, 1998.

It wasn't until the third question that Frank Lowy emerged as the most combative chairman to be encounted as an active investor on the annual meeting circuit.

The man who is worth more than $2 billion and delivered 38 straight profit rises, took exception to a question about his family's long term commitment to Westfield and short term market underperformance and it was all down hill from there.

It seems that the richer they are, the shorter their AGMS and, in some cases, the less tolerant the controlling shareholder. Rupert Murdoch rattled through the News Corp annual meeting in 20 minutes without a peep from the floor, Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd meeting was all over in half an hour and Mr Lowy joked that he should be getting paid overtime when his meeting dragged on for one hour and 20 minutes.

Enduring a Telstra-style five hour meeting would be a new experience Australia's most successful businessmen.

Despite the umbrage Mr Lowy took to questions about non-executive director pay and residents opposing the proposed Bondi Junction shopping centre redevelopment, several sensitive issues were not raised.

After all, he is Australia's highest paid executive who earned about almost $6.5 million last year after getting a $500,000 pay rise.

Given the stellar performance of the stock, noone is going to begrudge its driving force taking 6 per cent of profit in salary, but based on Mr Lowy's surprisingly abrupt and short answers, any shareholder who raised this issue would probably have received short shrift.

TAB chairman Gary Pemberton escaped relatively unscathed from the company's maiden annual meeting on Tuesday which was all wrapped up in a just 90 minutes.

TAB is likely to reconsider holding the meeting at Rosehill again given that only 510 of its 565,000 shareholders turned up and the level of debate was not overly indepth.

The debate at the six meetings I attended - Boral, Aristocrat, Mirvac, Westfield Holdings, Goodman Fielder and Infrastructure Trust Australia -was generally good.

A broad cross-section of shareholders gave the Mirvac board a thorough going over about its struggling share price and the future of the property market.

Similarly, the Aristocrat Leisure meeting drew out some good detail from the board on the company's planned foray into Nevada, the home of gambling.

Aristocrat chairman Dr Frank Burke certainly takes the prize for being the most laconic and amusing chairman I've encountered.

He also knew the business very well, unlike Boral chairman Peter Cottrell who was very dry and tended to pass most questions to chief executive Tony Berg.

Boral copped it in the neck from shareholders for almost three hours, with green investors leading the charge, but continued a welcome new initiative of asking each director up for re-election to speak to the meeting about his credentials.

This should be a model for all companies and was evident at the Lend Lease meeting and Goodman Fielder yesterday.

You almost felt sorry for Tony Berg, who has been hit by more bad luck than bad managment since he took the reigns in late 1993 promising to double shareholders funds. The shares would need to be about $5.50 by next year to satisfy this but closed yesterday at a miserable $2.32.

Even so, sceptical shareholders approved another 2.5 million options after the man who had a stellar career at Macquarie Bank signed up for another five years hard slog at Boral.

The Australian Shareholders Association had another busy week asking questions at TAB, Boral, Goodman Fielder, Aristocrat and a range of other companies.

The contribution by the ASA's Ray Wagner at Boral appropriately demolished the company's overly upbeat corporate video at the start of the meeting.

Goodman Fielder chairman David Clarke handled the food group's meeting well yesterday but shareholders who walked in with their shares worth $2.08, finished the day holding stock worth just $1.77.

The 500 shareholders who turned up would no doubt have preferred to give up their bag of company goodies handed out after the meeting and hung onto the stock value. Despite the chicken glut problems, English chief executive David Hearn continues to impress shareholders, staff and analysts alike, so much so that his 3 million options accompanying his new five year package were waved through with minimal comment yesterday.

The Goodman board is also a rare beast in corporate Australia, boasting no less than five non-executive directors with significant experience in the food industry.

None of them are household names on the AGM circuit, but the food expertise is to be welcomed. Other companies such as BHP, Southcorp, John Fairfax and Boral could well learn from this.

Southcorp gathered with shareholders in Adelaide yesterday and just as with News Corp, chairman Rick Allert did not face too many tricky questions from his parochial and supportive audience.