Australia’s first shareholder activist is still holding court in AGMs around the country — but does he speak for all shareholders?
Veteran shareholder activist Jack Tilburn is not giving up. After 36 years taking it up to company boards at annual meetings, he told Crikey yesterday he would never stop asking his questions from the floor and was looking forward to another AGM season this November.
That’s bad news for company chairs, who need to preserve a vibrant shareholder democracy without letting company meetings descend into farce.
Tilburn, 88, had a shocker yesterday, with hostility coming from all directions almost from the moment he took the mic at the Macquarie Group annual meeting at the upstairs ballroom at Sydney’s Sheraton hotel.
Seasoned business journos agreed afterwards we had never seen a room turn on Tilburn the way it did yesterday: more than loud groans, there were shouts for him to shut up, points of order from the floor calling on chairman Kevin McCann to silence him, and one departing shareholder called him a “waste of space” to his face.
Director Helen Nugent — herself taking the chair during the vote on the re-election of McCann — at one point asked for Tilburn’s mic to be switched off. That didn’t stop Tilburn, who kept shouting and reminded the room he had the right to freedom of speech and could not be silenced under s250S of the Corporations Act (which states, FYI, “the chair of an AGM must allow a reasonable opportunity for the members as a whole at the meeting to ask questions about or make comments on the management of the company”).
Without doubt, Tilburn’s questioning was unrepresentative of the majority of Macquarie shareholders, if not completely out of line. Macquarie has turned in arguably its best year since the GFC and, despite issues with its private wealth division and its tax payments, shareholders are happy, as reflected in near-unanimous support for all resolutions put to the meeting.
McCann himself grew increasingly angry. It started with ordering Tilburn to ask a question, rather than make a speech, and ended with McCann pondering that as chairman of a successful investment bank, he was being lectured — laughably — that “money is the root of all evil”. Like any chairperson, McCann has a responsibility to preserve order and will feel understandably protective of director colleagues copping sometimes highly personal abuse from the floor.
But that is Tilburn’s over-the-top style; he is not threatening, and even as he blew it yesterday, with hostility towards him mounting, I found myself increasingly sympathetic. It would be dangerous indeed if shutting up Jack Tilburn became a precedent for silencing shareholders whose questions the chair took exception to. If push comes to shove, nothing should undermine the right to question directors once a year.
Anyone who has attended a major AGM in the last three decades knows Tilburn’s questioning: there are frequently long and repetitive speeches, littered with references to the 528 meetings he’s turned up to, and too much bogging down in trivia like font size of annual reports (important to lots of elderly shareholders) and — yesterday, oddly — whether the “items” to be voted on should really be called “resolutions”.
Tilburn was a pioneer of shareholder activism in this country. Former Leighton Holdings chief Wal King dubbed him the “corporate terminator”, which is the title of his 2002 self-published book, which had a flattering foreword by the late Lend Lease chairman Stuart Hornery.
Ex-teachers are often good at public speaking; Tilburn taught high school economics here and in the UK for 20 years before starting up his own gardening business, mowing lawns on Sydney northern beaches, where he lives.
Tilburn started buying shares in the ’70s and, while he was in London, his mum used to send him press clippings about the companies he invested in. He got more and more interested and, after returning to Sydney, stood up at his first AGM in 1978. For the next 15 years he was something of a lone ranger, speaking up for small shareholders, in contrast to the then-tame Australian Shareholders’ Association (although he served as director for five years, Tilburn believes the ASA is too passive and cosies up to boards). After landmark court case Starr v Andrews, members’ right to ask questions — without time limits imposed — was codified in 1992 by the then-Australian Securities Commission, and ultimately backed up in the corporations law in 1998. Shareholder activism has taken off since.
Tilburn’s own achievements are not easily measured. Tilburn himself concedes he has never knocked off a director. A big win was getting tea and biscuits for shareholders, after he threatened to pass the hat around at the AGM of Australian National Industries in 1981. A constant theme was better information for shareholders in annual reports. More significantly, Tilburn succeeded in campaigning for bigger discounts for shareholders who participate in dividend reinvestment plans.
Tilburn’s book is full of corporate history — there are chapters on BHP’s Ok Tedi disaster, and AMP’s disastrous GIO takeover — and colour from his many David and Goliath battles. It is an ‘Australian Story’, if ever there were one.
Tilburn likes to give ‘em both barrels. Occasionally, like yesterday, they go off in his face. He counts it as one of his worst meetings, but he’s not looking back and he’s not retiring. “I’m not frightened of them — they’re frightened of me.”
But Tilburn is not frightening. His mission, in his own writings, is “we must all strive to successfully promote the modern day capitalist society, and the hero doctrine of this is the wealth-creator industrial mechanism of legitimate and powerful limited liability companies that prosper for the good of society”. And whether they’re frightened or just plain irritated, companies can’t keep Tilburn out. As he told Crikey yesterday: “I’m not carrying a gun, I haven’t got a bomb, I’m not assaulting anybody… It never has happened.”