National Australia Bank went into uncharted waters at yesterday’s AGM in Brisbane by paying journalists Ross Greenwood and Peter Thomson to conduct a 50-minute pre-meeting discussion with chairman Michael Chaney and CEO Cameron Clyne.

It was company secretary Michaela Healey who came up with the idea and despite some sniping by rival media outlets, the exercise worked really well.

Greenwood and Thompson had access to the 900 questions submitted by shareholders before the meeting and they very independently went through many difficult issues, covering everything from excessive pay, NAB’s relatively poor share price performance, branch closures, the shafting of retail shareholders and bank fees. Watch it all here.

The last time was saw a journalist professionally engaged for an AGM exercise was when Robert Gottliebsen interviewed BHP chairman Don Argus and CEO Marius Kloppers for a DVD, which was sent to all shareholders with the notice of meeting ahead of the 2008 AGM.

I wasn’t comfortable with this at the time, largely because there was little discussion around the fact BHP-Billiton was proposing to pay far too much for Rio Tinto at the time.

Yesterday’s exercise was better, partly because it was live and unscripted, not an edited DVD.

It was instructive that about 300 shareholders turned up for the 9.30am journalism session and there would only have been 400 tops in the house for the start of the AGM at 11am. The punters were clearly engaged with the fast-fasted and highly relevant conversation.

The other interesting format change was that everyone was fed between 10.30am and 11am, but there was no food supplied when the AGM finished just after 1pm. This was an oversight. While the journo session no doubt covered many of the questions that may have come from the floor, you can’t just assume the AGM will only take two hours and shareholders won’t get hungry and thirsty.

As it happened, the formal addresses at the NAB AGM barely lasted 10 minutes and then we were straight into questions on the accounts. The board assumed the journos’ session would take the edge off the formal debate and seemed a little surprised the formal debate dragged on.

The production qualities of the NAB webcast was the best we’ve ever seen and you can watch the various battles over the board tilt and shoddy treatment of retail investors in last year’s capital raising here.

The 40th straight defeat in a contested public company board election came as no surprise but the 5% vote in favour yesterday was thankfully better than the pathetic 0.9% at Ten Network Holdings last week and the 2.95% at Fairfax Media in November.

That said, the cumulative against vote over the past 10 years has now cracked $300 billion after $23.2 billion worth of stock was voted against yesterday.

The big news yesterday was obviously NAB’s $4.6 billion bid for Axa’s Australasian business and today’s press have missed one of the most interesting angles.

It was then National Mutual CEO Geoff Tomlinson who announced Axa’s original $500 million investment to take a controlling stake at the 1995 AGM.

These days Tomlinson is a NAB director and the chairman of its wealth management business MLC, so he’s effectively leading the buy-back of his old business.

Axa SA clearly got a remarkable bargain 14 years ago in buying 54% of the old National Mutual for just $500 million or the equivalent of $1.25 a share.

However, the clause that forced the French giant to do all its Asian expansion through the Australian listed vehicle was inspired.

The minorities are now valued at $6.50 as the French have agreed to pay a whopping $9 billion to buy the Asian business, which is clearly close to the best offshore foray by any Australian-based operation.

While there will be hundreds of jobs lost in Melbourne if the NAB deal goes through, from a national interest point of view billions of dollars of wealth have been created from the superb execution of a business plan into Asia. If only this happened more often.

Peter Fray

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