Posted: September 3rd, 2015
REPORT ON TRINITY MIRROR AGM
The meeting began at 11.30, Sir Ian Gibson in the chair. The whole board (10) was in attendance.
I estimate about 150 shareholders were present, mostly small and ex-employees.
I spoke with a number of people and listened to many more. I judge the meeting to vary from anger towards Sly Bailey to resentment towards the board for allowing what many described as this dreadful situation to happen. Overall there was irritation and the atmosphere was one of dismay and puzzlement. (I have attended funerals with more laughs).
Prior to the meeting I met and talked with the new chairman David Grigson. I judge him to be well aware of the problems he faces and seems determined to implement great changes. He remarked that “His biggest problem is finding the right sort of replacement for Sly Bailey”. I agreed that would be a difficult task and suggested that there was another problem he would need to address. Whilst the entire board was present I couldn’t see evidence of an Editorial Director nor a Marketing Director. If there was no one directing either the creative or marketing areas how did they expect to sell anything much less national newspapers.” He said something to the effect that this was something he had already noted.
I also met an NUJ official, I didn’t get his name but he was part of a lobby group that was handing out leaflets to those attending. I attach a copy. A question based on the content was asked later in the meeting. The Chairman gave a very woolly reply that added up to very little. The NUJ man said as much.
Sir Ian opened the meeting by praising the board and observing that they had performed magnificently. An opinion not shared by the rest of the room as was made clear later by repeated questions and condemnations of the directors’ remuneration packages, the reduction in titles and staffing levels, and the performance of the national titles. He even went as far as saying at one stage that the new management techniques devised by Trinity are admired and copied elsewhere, even world-wide! There was an audible gasp at that comment.
There was much discussion about the reduction in share value, with slanted remarks towards Sly Bailey. In her defence Sir Ian pointed to a number of positive achievements. Repayment of debt, improved cash flow, reduced staffing levels, entry into new markets etc and forecast that all these improvements would return the company to a position where they could again pay dividends. Few seemed convinced.
A letter had been sent to the chairman-elect by a Mr Brian Basham, he is chairman of a company that arranges corporate mergers and advises on corporate investments and what he terms “Reputation protection”. (A flash form of PR and very expensive). He joined my discussion with David Grigson prior to the meeting and asked if he had received the letter. DG said he hadn’t seen it yet but invited him to ask the questions contained in it during the meeting. Most of the questions concerned the payments to the Pension Schemes and the involvement of the Regulator. They were very direct and when raised clearly made Sir Ian uncomfortable. His response was again vague and wordy adding up to an evasion of the question. One comment he made I did consider important. He said “The involvement of the Pensions Regulator was not a problem for the Board. It was a matter for the Trustees to deal with.” He saw no reason why the PR should be involved anyway and didn’t anticipate any difficulties arising from that direction. He considered a recent article in The Times to be ill judged.
A Mr McLean from Scotland made an aggressive speech about the loss of value of his shares. He complained bitterly about the management of the company it’s loss of value and lack of any signs of growth or confidence in the future. The Chairman’s response was to talk about the Manchester Evening News and insist how well the company had performed in that instance compared to the previous owner, Guardian Newspapers.
To another questioner the Chairman said that they didn’t mount circulation pushes because it was too expensive. They left that to others who he said couldn’t be profitable. TNI was.
This drew a comment from a Mr Seymour he told the meeting that Associated and News Corp thought otherwise and so did the owner of The Evening Standard. That paper he insisted was virtually unobtainable after about five o’clock. Were there lessons to be learned? The Chairman thought not. The questioner then drew attention to the variable pricing policy for Sunday titles when vying for the defunct NOW circulation. In London it was 50p in Colchester and elsewhere it was £1. The Chairman acknowledged that this policy had been used and was in the opinion of the board, successful. They hadn’t made the offer of a reduced price nationally because of the cost.
Sly Bailey was the subject of many questions and comments. One man said. “The Mirror draws attention to the fat cats in the banking industry. What about the fat cats nearer home?” That started a discussion about the rumoured payoff for her. The Chairman vigorously defended her remuneration and insisted there was no question of a £1million pay off. He repeated that last comment several times. She will be working out her contract.
There were many other comments and questions all more or less on the subjects mentioned. One recurring word used by the Chairman troubled me a bit, “Receivers”. All the actions taken by the board were designed to avoid the company finishing up in their hands he said. In fact he said it so many times that if I were a financial reporter I would be investigating that comment further. The vote came and those around me voted solidly against re-election of Sly Bailey and most of the board and against their plan for remuneration. My notes say that I reckoned the feeling of the room to be fifty-fifty. Strangely…or perhaps not, there was no comment from any of the major shareholders, none from any member of the board …and not a word spoken by Sly Bailey.
I realise this report is less than cheerful but this is what the feeling of the room was like. I have never been to a business meeting where there was such a resentful and distrustful atmosphere. No one including the directors showed the slightest enthusiasm or excitement for the tasks before them. It was to me a depressing experience. The one good thing about the visit was the prospect of the Chairman-elect. He did impress me greatly and I am certain we shall see a lot of action and changes in the not too distant future.
The meeting broke for refreshment at 1 o’clock. I didn’t stay for lunch or the afternoon session. There didn’t seem to be any point.
Derek Rogers. 10th May 2012.
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