Nuns battle online-only AGMs
The Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia, known for their work with the poor and elderly and giving a voice to those who usually go unheard, are taking their work to Wall Street by campaigning against online-only shareholder meetings.
The order of more than 400 Catholic nuns have filed resolutions with ConocoPhillips, the oil group, and Comcast, the telecoms company, over their decisions to abandon physical AGMs for shareholders, Corporate Secretary sister publication IR Magazine reports.
The nuns want businesses to reintroduce face-to-face meetings with direct access to boards alongside virtual events.
The ConocoPhillips resolution has been co-filed by the Church of the Brethren Benefit Trust, which oversees the retirement income of pastors and members of the Brethren community, and the Needmor Fund, a social justice organization.
The nuns write in the ConocoPhillips filing: ‘Annual meetings are one of the few opportunities for top management and the board to interact directly, face-to-face, with a cross-section of their shareholders.’
They further warn that the ‘controversial’ move towards online-only shareholder meetings is setting a precedent to create a ‘slippery slope’ that would also encourage other companies to ‘insulate themselves from shareholders.’
Since the start of 2016, the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia have also issued AGM resolutions on climate change, drug pricing, corporate lobbying and business practices at Wells Fargo.
In a statement on corporate responsibility on the order’s website, they say they seek ‘to do the right thing as we continue to confront corporate structures and systems that exploit, alienate and delude.’
‘We appreciate the dialogue we have with our shareholders, and our board of directors will take shareholder feedback regarding our annual stockholders meeting into consideration when making its decision about the 2018 meeting,’ a ConocoPhillips spokesperson says in a statement. ‘We’re in the midst of our Fall shareholder outreach/engagement program and are seeking feedback on this matter.’
A spokesperson for Comcast did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A growing number of US companies, including Ford, HP, Duke Energy and PayPal, are moving to virtual meetings, citing cost savings and greater accessibility for investors.
An analysis by Broadridge Financial Solutions and PwC’s Governance Insights Center finds that 163 companies hosted virtual-only shareholder meetings (VSMs) in the first half of the year, compared with 122 during the first half of 2016 – an increase of 34 percent (CorporateSecretary.com, 9/27).
The sisters are not alone in their concerns. The Council of Institutional Investors, whose members have $3 trillion in assets under management, has warned companies against hosting virtual-only meetings.
New York City comptroller Scott Stringer in April said he would be urging more than 15 companies to host in-person AGMs rather than VSMs, arguing that they ‘deprive shareowners of the fundamental right that, regardless of the number of shares they own, they can engage directly with management and directors – face to face – at least one time per year.’
But issuers counter that they are seeing declining attendances at in-person AGMs for the same amount of work, Cathy Conlon, head of corporate issuer product and strategy for Broadridge’s investor communications solutions division, told attendees at a Shareholder Services Association conference in July (CorporateSecretary.com, 7/26). She added that VSMs allow all shareholders to attend, regardless of where they live.