As a shareholder activist, people
sometimes ask who have been the most interesting or colourful company bosses
to come up against. Kerry Packer may have been the most
intriguing interview talent that Michael Pascoe ever faced, but it was
never quite like that at PBL AGMs because the big man never actually
stood up to face the questions.

Sure, occasionally he would grab
the microphone and lob some entertaining grenades and in October 2000
he gave me that precious quote which finished up on a Crikey mug: “Do
you deliberately set out to be offensive or is it just natural?”

But
truth be known, Kerry Packer was so shareholder unfriendly that in my
experience he never even mingled with his shareholders over a cup of
tea, let alone delivered a presentation.

Rupert Murdoch clearly
out-performed him in this regard because he gives shareholder
presentations, answers all the questions, has a separate press
conference and then usually mingles with the shareholders after the
meeting. Sadly, the death of Packer and the departure of News Corp to
the USA means the Australian AGM scene has now lost its two most
intriguing figures in the space of 15 months.

For sheer abuse
and combativeness in response to AGM questions, neither Murdoch nor
Packer get near Westfield boss Frank Lowy, but Frank never had the
humour, charm or political savvy of his richer fellow billionaires.

So
who are the fascinating owner-operators left at the top of Australian
public companies? Here is a list of my four favourites, although the
ranks are clearly thinning when you also consider that the likes of
John Singleton and Solomon Lew have quit the last of their public
company boards and Multiplex founder John Roberts was rolled as
executive chairman last year.

Westfield: Lowy family has 11% and executive chairman Frank Lowy is as combative as they come
Harvey Norman:
It’s always a laugh with executive chairman and 30.5% shareholder Gerry
Harvey, who said “That’s the first time anyone has ever interrupted our
AGM, I’ll get you later” when I asked a question at the 2001 meeting.
PBL:
Packer family has 37.4% but chairman James Packer is nowhere near as
interesting as his late father. In fact, James was nauseatingly nice to
everyone at the first Seek AGM in Melbourne last year.
Seven Network: Kerry Stokes has 43% and can be a little combative despite professing to welcome tough questions.

And now here’s a list of the three most boring owner-operators who still chair their public companies:

Reece Australia: Executive
chairman Alan Wilson has run the plumbing supplies business since 1974,
but despite his family owning a $1 billion stake this operation reeks
of boredom.
Rural Press: John B Fairfax and his family
control 53.5% but the AGMs are held in Richmond, outside Sydney, and
there’s nothing too exciting about an old but boring Sydney
establishment family running a large number of small newspapers.
Ramsay Health Care:
Paul Ramsay has 42.7% and might be a wealthy mate of the PM’s but his
AGMs are never very exciting and his polite manner usually defuses any
tension.

Sadly, this whole notion of professional directors and
independent chairs is taking much of the colour and movement out of the
AGM scene. There are more and more billionaires in Australia but fewer
of them still manage public companies, let alone actually run the
gauntlet of an AGM.

In this respect, I’ll certainly miss Big Kerry who is the only chairman
to have swiftly cut down the raving Jack Tilburn when he declared at
the 2003 AGM, “I’ve got my opinion and you’ve got your opinion, and
I’ve got more shares than you,” which was quickly followed by “you’re
asking trivial questions and wasting everyone’s time.”