Posted: May 30th, 2013
AMP committee man Derek Rogers, left, covered his second successive Trinity Mirror annual general meeting (May, 2013), and in the process obtained verbal commitments from company chairman David Grigson and chief executive Simon Fox that they would attend the association’s own AGM this October. Here’s his personal view from the floor…
I spent the half hour before the meeting, which was held at the Hilton Hotel, chatting with a number of shareholders of varying levels of investment; one or two were significant holders.
Noticeably absent was any form of demonstration or protest group inside or outside the hotel – a marked difference to last year. The atmosphere in the lounge before, during and after the meeting was relaxed, positive, agreeable and completely free of the underlying anger so evident 12 months ago. Indeed there were frequent outbursts of genuine laughter.
Though not all were completely satisfied with the new board’s progress, the big difference this year was that the directors answered all questions in a forthright and blunt manner and illustrated a deep commitment to returning the company to a strong position.
I would judge there were about 180 people present. The general feeling in the room appeared to me expectant rather than critical, and delegates seemed impressed with chairman David Grigson’s style.
The entire board was present and each member was introduced individually by the chairman, with a brief outline of their portfolio and some personal background. He constantly invited board members to speak, comment on or amplify his statements. I can only describe his performance as chairman as impressive.
The meeting was in four sections: Chairman’s opening remarks and report for the past year; Simon Fox’s visual presentation on the aims and objectives of the new board; Questions; Voting and closure
The chairman praised the company’s management and staff who had, he said, performed brilliantly in a difficult market – many company objectives had been met. He was confident his team would continue to perform well throughout 2013. He made a number of claims of success and pointed to the increase in the share price as evidence of the rising confidence of the City in TM’s performance.
Sly Bailey’s remuneration was discussed and the detailed explanation as to why the company was obliged to honour her legal contract seemed to be accepted by the floor.
There were no critical remarks or rebuttals of the chairman’s claims from delegates, and in fact the level of expectation rose steadily throughout the meeting. Overall David Grigson said he was pleased with the results of the first year of office for the new board, and was confident 2013 would see further improvements.
Other areas covered by the chairman:
Debt reduction, which he claimed had been substantial. There was a passing reference to the pension deficit, very quick and in no great detail… nobody pressed that point then or during questions and I let sleeping dogs lie – for now.
Particular comment was made about the phone-hacking scandal and those TM journalists who are under investigation. The chairman confirmed the board would not countenance activity such as phone hacking, but would stand by those accused until more was known about the charges. He would make no further comment for legal reasons. This story will run and run.
His description of directors’ remuneration was of great interest to the room. Apparently, in future all remuneration will consist of a basic salary commensurate with market conditions – but by far the greater part of the amount a director can earn will be linked to the company’s share price. Challenging targets have been established and directors will receive payment above basic salary only if a certain level of share price is achieved and held. Targets are high; the room was impressed.
Simon Fox then took centre stage and made the presentation he has been delivering to major investors and interested parties in the City. His performance was impressive. Using slides he illustrated his analysis of the separate activities of the business, where those activities overlapped, and how TM intended to tackle each sector. Then he finally described how all the components would be brought together under the heading “One Trinity Mirror”. (That had a resonance with advice said to have been given to a certain political party, and was greeted with smiles).
One downside of his message was that the company’s performance in the digital area has been poor, and since this is an area of expertise he was familiar with, he was personally overseeing activity and developments in this vital and growing market, leading a suitably qualified team. This was loudly applauded.
He insisted time and again that TM cares deeply about its employees, customers, readers, advertisers and investors, and, having listened to them all, tries to respond quickly and frankly. (A cynic might say that any company would say that, wouldn’t they?, but on this occasion no one did).
He generated a feeling of confidence and optimism that was almost tangible in the room. His speech covered print services and their development; property holdings and usage – Group Finance Director Vijay Vaghela was co-opted to offer remarks on this subject too. At the end of his presentation Simon Fox was roundly applauded, in my view, rightly so.
There were a number of NUJ delegates who were also shareholders. They put a range of questions to the board including: Was the board aware of the enormous stress under which NUJ members in Birmingham and elsewhere were working as a result of unreasonable management demands and staffing levels?
The chairman and CEO both responded, pointing out that TM took great care to provide the best working conditions possible for all their workers, though unfortunately the exigencies of the newspaper business and the fiercely competitive market conditions all combine to produce stress. But Simon Fox said he would investigate the problem and reply directly and in depth to the questioner.
There were also comments on sliding circulations and the poor digital performance. Simon Fox and Mark Hollingshead both responded: circulations were holding better than expected and compared favourably with competitors. They accepted digital services were poor. Both areas were being dissected to establish the best way forward. The latter service particularly was acknowledged to be understaffed and would be beefed up slowly as new systems became operational. The reply satisfied the room.
A comment from a woman investor brought smiles to all faces. There were, she said, not enough women on the board, and what was to be done about it? It seemed to catch the board on the wrong foot and their reply was less than convincing. I got the impression the matter had never occurred to them; they are interested only in a person’s ability to perform a task, not their gender. Still, the questioner had a good point and the board knew it.
Other questions covered redundancy, raised by an NUJ member from the north; cover prices, raised by an investor who compared other cover prices with those of TM.
Property was raised a number of times, most interestingly in a question about whether the board intended to remain in Canary Wharf. That seemed a tricky one and even the chairman flannelled a bit. The contract has some time to run, five years I think was mentioned, and an assessment will be made nearer the time, he said. Vijay was unable to comment on that or on the overall value of the property portfolio. He was frankly a bit shifty in his replies on this subject. This subject will crop up again, I think.
Secretary & Group Legal Director Paul Vickers is very involved with matters arising from the Leveson enquiry and made a short report on the inquiry. He wasn’t able to say much because of “confidentiality”, but it’s an area taking up a lot of his time.
SUMMARY: This was a very different board to last year. Its whole attitude and style has changed. The image of the company in this meeting engendered feelings of confidence and optimism. The press statement released by the chairman accurately reflected the meetings’ view and the City clearly agreed because the share price shot up 15 pence before close of play a day later.
As reported earlier, I spoke with a number of directors and all evinced interest in AMP matters. The chairman and CE both agreed enthusiastically to attend our AGM. I have written to confirm details, though I have learned since that a TM group meeting the Midlands might affect their attendance. Whatever happens they now both know more about us, and both said they want know us better.
My comment on the meeting… well, I enjoyed it. I came away feeling that the titles we all hold in such affection are now in much better hands. I think we should make every effort to develop contact at the highest level and keep the board aware of what we think and do. There is a new era abroad at TM, one where professionalism rules and “the old days” are just that. To them it’s only the future that matters. Their entire business life and reputations depend on a good performance, and anything we can do to help will, I am, sure be appreciated.
(You can view the company’s statement here: http://www.trinitymirror.com/documents/financial-reports/2013/ims-may-20…)
By FRANK THORNE
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