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Help wanted: Gender balanced investors to quiz Directors on the gender agenda

iStock_000002862870LargeDo you invest in shares? Would you use your vote to demand that companies you invest in act now to capitalize on the opportunity women present? If so, I want to hear from you. (And if not, you should and you can!)

As a shareholder, I attended the Fairfax Media annual general meeting in Sydney last week. My interest as a shareholder is to maximize the return on my investment, and I attended this AGM with that in mind.

I’m always fascinated by the goings on at a formal company AGM. The room is always fairly predictable. The Board of Directors at the front of the room is invariably mostly male, with lots of grey hair and very white complexions.

The shareholders are mostly older, mostly white males with mostly balding heads and far too many comb-overs for my comfort.

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And there’s always that one obstinate octogenarian on a leave pass from his retirement village, out for a day of entertainment in the city.

In between there’s a spattering of women, some attending as support crew of the old males and the odd one there on her own.

And of the males in attendance, there’s an over-representation of Australian Honours pins displayed prominently on their dark coloured suit coats.

I was there for one reason, and one reason alone: to ask – as a shareholder – how the Board and CEO planned to maximize my shareholder return by capitalizing on women as a talent pool and influential consumer base.

At the commencement of the meeting, the Chair Mr Nick Falloon and CEO Mr Greg Hywood shared their take on the company strategy and corresponding performance results, culminating in Fairfax’s first year-on-year growth in revenue in eight years. Good news for investors.

One of the slides presented by Hywood really grabbed my attention: of the many and various journalism awards the company has snared over the past year, 55% were attributed to women:

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At Fairfax, the current share price of less than one dollar is hovering a mere 20 per cent of its peak value. This is a company in crisis, mid way through a transformation to reduce debt, contemporize its offering, and halt the decline in its audience.

53% of its 7,000 strong workforce are women. According to the annual report diversity reporting, 34% of senior management are female, 22% (2 out of 9) Board Directors are women and only 18% of the executive management team are women.

So given that the majority of the company’s top talent (which by proxy I defined as industry award recipients) are women, and we know that companies with more women on their Boards reported a 42% greater return on sales and a 53% higher return on equity than the rest, and we know that 74% of women make or share all of the financial decision-making in Australian households, my question to the Chair was simple:

How is Fairfax investing in its female talent and female audiences
to capitalize on the great opportunity they present for shareholders?

 

My question was backed up with the aforementioned statistics, and the CEO and Chair were ready for my angle and we clearly were all speaking the same language. They shared various insights on initiatives under way to address the gender gap in the business – albeit mostly from an employee perspective, rather than customer strategy. In management levels, female quotas have been introduced on candidate panels along with mandatory female representation on selection panels, and these kinds of initiatives are considered to be having a positive impact.  All good.

But it was very clear that beyond the Board, other investors in the room had very little awareness of the business benefits of gender balance.

In fact, another shareholder stood up after me, in question time, to announce via the Chair that “she doesn’t care if the company employs men, women or anything in between as long as they are the best person for the job”, and that she can’t understand “how men like them put up with women like me bashing on about gender at every opportunity”.

Then a Pin-Man waited til after the meeting had concluded to add his ten cents worth: “You’re wrong you know. There’s no point putting more women on the Board when they’re not the best person for the job, and most women are just not up to it. It has to be about merit.”

Oh, that merit thing again. Right. And yet it’s a view still so commonly held. And in any case, I’d asked the Chair nothing about the Board!

“As an investor, I’m VERY confident that a publicly listed company would NOT appoint an incompetent director of either gender to their Board”, I retorted. “And they couldn’t do any worse than the Director you just re-elected who – by his own admission – missed five board meetings this year!”

Pin-Man was quite obviously shocked that I dared to point out the obvious. Of course he’d never vote for an incapable director, and nor should he. None of us would, and so far, there’s been plenty of women capable of stepping into the roles being made available for women on the Board.

Merit? Best person for the job? Banging on? My guess is we’re still not banging on enough.

So how about we make a goal to do more of that, together?

My guess is that more of us need to get along to the AGMs of the companies we invest in – personally, in your self managed super or even a family trust – to ask the questions and to demand a better use of our shareholder funds, and better returns.

I’m an avid investor – I have many views on why we hold shares is good for everyone (to get the ball rolling, these are my 11 reasons why we should all invest in equities) – and I feel strongly that as a community we can and should demand more of the Boards and business leaders in our community, in relation to gender balance and the opportunity it presents.

After this meeting last week, I made a decision to attend more AGMs and keep this issue on the agenda with both the Boards of Directors of the companies I invest in, but importantly to convince other investors of the value gender balance could create for shareholders.

I think the ASX200 is a good starting point, and I’m able to cover a lot of the Sydney AGMs on my own ticket, but I’m going to need a hand with other States and some of the holdings. So if you enjoy investing in shares – or you’d be willing to vote on my proxy or assign proxies for companies you invest in – or even if you’d like to come along and see how we can rattle this can, then please contact me so we can make a plan.

If we can muster a quorum, it would also be incredibly powerful to start an investment club with a view to coordinating our response and extracting maximum returns from gender balance, and so we can get a greater spread of companies across the ASX within our sights.

So… if you’re interested in meeting with likeminded can-rattlers, learning more about investing or buying shares or possibly getting along to vote at shareholder meetings – then have a look at this post I’ve written and if it piques your interest, then please drop me a line. Note: you don’t have to to be of the female gender and you don’t have to invest in shares, but it would be helpful if you were at least willing to learn how they both work 🙂

Really, please do contact me, this is something we can all do collectively to really make a difference. Oh, I can’t wait, this is going to be fun!

home8-jpg I await your enthusiastic response!

Jen signoff

 

 

 

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