Virtual AGMs – Are they here to stay?

virtual AGMs

Written by Sue Lawrence

June 5, 2020

Current AGMs are largely hybrid meetings combining small scale physical meetings with virtual attendees. But could they become the new normal for future AGMs?

Many companies have found solutions for holding formal company meetings during the period of lockdown, whether this is virtual meetings, hybrid meetings incorporating some virtual communications, written resolutions or, for those hoping not to have to implement change, postponing meetings for as long as possible. Alongside this, legislation throughout the world has been adjusted or relaxed to accommodate Covid-19 related changes. What has been evident is that the use of virtual meetings based around electronic communications has been adopted extensively.

Virtual meetings have long been held for internal or purely operational meetings of directors and executives as they enable efficient and effective meetings to be held without participants, who are often geographically dispersed, having to travel to attend a physical meeting. Technology has developed considerably over the past decade to accommodate effective communication and this type of formal connectivity.

However, the drive to utilise technology for larger gatherings, specifically AGMs where a broad range of shareholders and stakeholders are brought together *, has long been discussed, but only infrequently applied. Barriers to the implementation of virtual meetings have been thrown up, including legal restrictions, a perceived lack of shareholder acceptance, practical issues in terms of voting and the potential resultant inability to challenge boards and executives on their actions.

The current global situation, with many countries implementing social distancing and/or restrictions on meetings of more than a small number of people, have meant that companies have had to adapt their standard annual meeting approach. This is particularly evident in those companies who have a formal deadline to hold a meeting within a certain time period of the end of their financial year end. In the UK, a public company with a financial year end of 31st December has a requirement to have their annual accounts approved by their shareholders at an AGM within 6 months of the year end, with the same requirement for private companies being 9 months. These deadlines have meant that companies have had to adapt their plans during this, the UK public listed company AGM season, to reflect a myriad of imposed requirements.

Attending a recent webinar from The Chartered Governance Institute (a global network with 9 local institutes in countries throughout the world) on this topic, where practitioners shared their experience of rearranging large-scale AGMs, it was evident that companies are finding effective solutions to ensuring that they can continue to fulfill their obligations with governance experts adapting to the current requirements, whether this is to incorporate social distancing measures or to implement virtual meetings. Some core lessons were shared on achieving quorum, generating questions before the meeting, sharing the status and outlook for the business through statements and videos, as well as demonstrating continued commitment to having physical meetings in the future. (A recording of this insightful webinar is due to be shared on their website at: https://www.cgiglobal.org/ )

What should be remembered is that the AGM is a meeting with two primary purposes. One is to get the operational business of the company approved through the adoption of resolutions presented to shareholders. The other is to enable shareholders to hold the board and executive to account for their actions. The former is relatively straight-forward to accommodate in a virtual meeting, unless there are any contentious resolutions. The latter, which is arguably the most important purpose, is more difficult to incorporate. Submission of questions by shareholders before the meeting can initiate some discussion and feedback but is unlikely to create a robust discussion or enable effective challenge.

Best practice seems to have been the commitment to hold a shareholder meeting later in the year when it can be held physically with the primary purpose of enabling shareholders to question and challenge boards and executives on their actions, strategy and future plans. Given the current disruption that has impacted on companies, either positively or negatively financially, but in all cases significantly with regard to operations and activity, being able to share the view from the board of the future of the business with shareholders is surely an imperative that any effective board should seek to have.

It has been noted that the majority of AGMs are attended by retail investors seeking a connectivity with the companies they have invested in. Whilst there is representation by institutional investors, these large-scale investors also have the ability to speak directly with the company outside of the meeting, at the request of either party. This direct contact means that their views are already known to companies and can be accommodated in actions, communications and expectations around voting. Virtual meetings for these shareholders can be seen as formalities, rather than a key touchpoint during the financial year.

The real benefit of the AGM then is to hear the view of the breadth of retail shareholders who may hold relatively few shares by percentage but, by their actions as consumers, may have a broader impact on the success of the company. The views of the wider stakeholder community can also be added, especially for companies that have a direct impact on communities, whether locally or globally. It is particularly in these companies that the ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) agenda is so important and where recent global activism surrounding climate change has been so vocal. Whilst it may be tempting for boards to avoid or downplay the opportunity for these views to be publicly heard, the alternative may drive these stakeholders to seek other avenues to challenge companies and their executives. In fact, having an AGM enables this section to have the opportunity to vocalise their opinions and any board should welcome and be able to respond to these.

One view that has favoured virtual meetings is that, where discussions may be contentious or there may be a visible group with a focused agenda, the views of the silent minority, or even the silent majority, may be lost in the noise. Having a virtual meeting with questions asked ahead of the meeting enables all questions to be received, considered and responded to, no matter their source, topic or the volume of the questioner.

What is the Likely Future for Virtual AGMs?

The consensus view is that the current forced requirement to review how meetings can be held has enabled discussions that have been held over many years to be crystalised. Hybrid meetings have become the norm in the current AGM season with those still to come seeking to implement them rather than await the potential reversion back to normality.

Actions have been taken to amend Articles where needed to allow for virtual meetings. The ability to have a quorum through minimum attendance and proxies has been ascertained and adopted. Pro-active requests for questions prior to the meeting have been implemented, and shareholders have responded positively. Resolutions have been shared prior to the meeting as usual, but with greater emphasis on lodging votes prior to the meeting.

All of these actions can easily be continued in the future to the benefit of the business, either in their entirety or in part.

Where there is clearly a residual requirement for a physical meeting is for the shareholder connectivity and the ability for the board and stakeholders to meet and exchange views. In the future, the opportunity for this for the wider shareholder community to meet needs to be maintained. If the only discussion with shareholders is via the privileged access that major institutional shareholders receive, then the board and executives are not getting the benefit of a broader perspective. This is particularly important in those companies with a breadth of retail investors and/or who’s customer base is the individual consumer.

If the follow up physical meetings are a success post lock-down, they may become the norm for shareholder interaction and could relegate the AGM to being a formality of approvals of resolutions. In this scenario it could easily be seen that AGMs are held virtually whilst shareholder meetings, in an alternative format, are held separately. The consideration then should be when the shareholder meetings are held and whether one per year is sufficient. For example, should contentious resolutions be shared for discussion with shareholders at a meeting so their views can be accommodated? Given the board is acting on behalf of shareholders, you would expect the views of shareholders, especially those that are in contrast to the board, should be at least discussed, even if not accommodated in their entirety. Should the forward-looking strategy of the business become a stand-alone meeting with shareholders to encourage discussion and wider opinions and views?

With the increase focus on ESG by many companies, non-AGM meetings may be a preferred solution as the stakeholder voice gains more traction and companies recognise more directly their impact on society and the environment around them. Hopefully this will also be a way for those companies who, many as a result of Covid-19, have consciously recognised their wider impact on society as being a core element to their business model and ultimate success, to maintain this connection. By continuing to seek the views of stakeholders as well as the broad shareholder group, they can continue their ESG focus beyond the crisis to the benefit of the company, as well as the society in which they act.

So are virtual AGMs here to stay? I hope so for the practicalities but only with alternative methods being introduced and maintained to facilitate shareholder and stakeholder interaction outside of the AGM and beyond lead institutional investors.

* A video on holding hybrid AGMs from the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries in August 2018 is an interesting 3 minute watch especially with the benefit of hindsight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqzty6DBX-8&feature=youtube.be

The Chartered Governance Institute has published new guidance on what constitutes good practice in the conduct of virtual board and committee meetings which can be found on their website at:

https://www.icsa.org.uk/knowledge/resources/good-practice-for-virtual-board-and-committee-meetings

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