Why an AGM visit is crucial for governance students

Throughout my revision for the corporate governance module one section especially fascinated me — annual general meetings.

AGMs allow shareholders to hold boards to account for their decisions and the performance of the company, with directors tackling questions head on, at the risk of being rebuffed in front of a live audience.

These meetings also give shareholders the chance to directly communicate their concerns and views to the board, and as such I was delighted to see an opportunity to attend an annual general meeting via the ICSA Graduate Hub.

I applied for the Marks and Spencer’s AGM, being a regular shopper at the retail chain and interested in the markets it operates in.

Controversy began before I even arrived at the venue in Wembley Stadium. Leaving the nearby station, I saw a small group of protestors campaigning against M&S’s advertisements in The Daily Mail because of the newspapers’ controversial reporting of the migrant crisis.

While it surprised me, I recognised this was perfect timing for the group. Although the protesters were few, arriving shareholders would see the protest and immediately have the chance to address these wider concerns to the board.

During the welcome the chairman Robert Swannell referenced the campaign, foregoing a chance to ignore it.

He emphasised that M&S is nonpartisan, and its decision to advertise in The Daily Mail was based on the best use of the marketing budget for reaching suitable demographics.

Even so, two people later queried the company’s choice of advertising partner in the Q&A session, giving me a wonderful chance to witness shareholder activism in action.

This was emblematic of the meeting, with shareholders directing tough questions to the board and not relenting until they were answered satisfactorily.

Among the topics raised were the reduction in share price, shortages of the fastest-selling sizes in women’s clothing in stores, M&S’s assistance of victims of the Grenfell Fire, and whether the firm would be introducing the living wage.

These questions clearly indicated to the board the main concerns and priorities amongst shareholders, and will hopefully inform and be reflected in its future decisions.

That said, I was surprised that the chairman, Swannell, did most of the speaking, with the chief executive Steve Rowe contributing some thoughts and the rest of the board remaining quiet.

I expected that each board member would speak about the performance in their department and was disappointed not to have heard from them. I believe the purpose of AGMs is to hold the whole board to account, so I am unsure if this is typical.

Despite that, attending the AGM was an illuminating experience, and made me more excited to start my career as a company secretary. I would like to thank ICSA and M&S’s company secretary Amanda Mellor for the opportunity.

I look forward to attending more AGM’s and seeing the different ways boards address the room, and would encourage students to do likewise, and bring their own studies to life.

To find out more about the opportunity to sit in on an AGM and gain a rare insight into a key event in the company secretary’s calendar, visit ‘AGM Invitations’ on the ICSA Graduate Hub.

Palissa Osei-Owusu is a CSQS student

Search ICSA