A GROWING number of companies are using the web to give their shareholders opportunities to pose questions to directors and executives at their annual meetings.
Since many shareholders are unable to attend meetings in person, the move by companies to use the web could help to reengage apathetic retail stockholders in the annual meeting process. At many U.S. company meetings last year, less than 5% of retail shareholder accounts participated.
Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) recently opened a forum for stockholders to submit questions and vote for other shareholders’ submissions. The most popular questions will be put to the board and management at the company’s annual meeting on May 7.
To filter the questions, the Internet giant is using Google Moderator, a free application that it has long used for internal meetings. The White House used the same application for a Town Hall with President Obama last month.
|Anyone with a Google account is able to submit and vote on questions for the company’s annual meeting.|
One of the least tech savvy companies, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BKR.A, BKR.B), broke with tradition this year to include an Internet component for its May 2 annual meeting. The company asked shareholders to email questions to leading journalists, who will choose which questions to ask at the meeting. A draw will also be held for shareholders in attendance who want to ask questions.
In the UK, Barclays plc (NYSE: BCS) included a form in its online annual report for investors to submit questions to the company. They are also invited to email questions to be asked at the meeting. Similarly, UK-based insurer Aviva plc (LON:AV) provides an online form for shareholders to submit questions for its upcoming meeting.
For several years, International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has invited shareholders to submit annual meeting questions online and then published answers after the meeting. It is doing the same thing for its 2009 meeting on April 28. Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) has followed a similar process for the past two years, but does not post answers to questions online.
|`”Your View” is a main section in Barclays’ online annual report.|
As we were first to report, this year Intel Corporation (NASDAQ: INTC) will become the first company to permit live voting at its annual meeting via the web. Shareholders will also be able to ask questions online during the meeting.
Last week, Intel launched a closed shareholder forum, which is built on the Investor Network platform of Broadridge Financial Solutions (NYSE: BR). I suspect Intel’s forum will be a flop because it is not public, because it demeans retail shareholders, and because it’s not clear what investors are signing up for.
Of all the approaches companies are taking, I like Google’s the most. It’s open, transparent and relies on the crowd to determine which are the most important questions. Best of all, any company can use the same approach for free.
Finally, let me just place on record that inviting questions from shareholders who are unable to attend the annual meeting is not new. Australian companies such as BHP Billiton and Commonwealth Bank have long included a printed question card with their meeting materials for shareholders to mail back to the company.