It may well be part of the broader political and ideological battle between industry funds and the big four banks, but First Super opened up an interesting debate yesterday by publicly announcing it would vote against two Commonwealth Bank directors at Wednesday’s AGM in Melbourne.
The story was also given to the industry fund-backed publication The New Daily, which quoted First Super CEO Bill Watson as saying that a Senate committee had concluded that the bank had shown a “callous disregard for clients’ interests” between 2006 and 2010.
First Super is a small forestry, furniture and timber fund with $2 billion under management. It is co-chaired by CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor, and CFMEU veteran David Kirner, the son of former Victorian premier Joan Kirner, is also on the board.
First Super’s modest 180,000 Commonwealth Bank votes against CBA directors Andrew Mohl and Launa Inman won’t trouble Australia’s biggest financial institution, which is today capitalised at more than $134 billion and has 1.62 billion ordinary shares on issue.
Even the Liberal Party’s rich Victorian investment arm has a bigger stake, with 260,000 CBA shares worth $21 million. How will be they be voting on Wednesday?
Indeed, it would be more significant if the largest individual CBA shareholder, financial planning veteran Barry Lambert, voted his 1.71 million shares worth $141 million against the re-election of incumbent directors.
However, it will be interesting to see if there are any meaningful protest votes given the substantial brand damage that CBA whistleblower and North Sydney councillor Jeff Morris has inflicted on both the CBA and corporate regulator ASIC over poorly supervised financial planning rip-offs.
This powerful Adele Ferguson story on Four Corners in April was the biggest single hit to the CBA brand since the bank was floated in 1992. It is up for three Walkley awards in Sydney on December 4 and is a good prospect for the Gold Walkley.
The issue of financial planning rip-offs, ignored whistleblowers and weak regulators certainly incensed the politicians. It hard to remember another major corporate sustaining such a blistering bipartisan attack from a Senate committee, which called for a royal commission into the Commonwealth Bank.
Morris will be at Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday morning giving further evidence to the Senate Economic References Committee, which is now focusing particularly on ANZ’s role in the brutal financial work-out of the Timbercorp collapse. Ferguson produced another ripping read on that saga over the weekend.
Morris may even drop into the CBA AGM at Melbourne’s South Wharf and ask a couple of questions, which would be interesting to watch given that the board has been largely invisible throughout the whole saga.
When committee chairman Sam Dastyari recently requested CBA chairman David Turner to appear at a public hearing, the bank immediately offered up CEO Ian Narev.
Turner, 69, has been a CBA director since 2006 and chairman since 2010. Given the hardball tactics of the bank when it came to recognising there was a problem during his chairmanship, there might well be a perception issue with his re-election at next year’s AGM.
A raft of elderly chairs of ASX listed companies have recently announced retirement plans, so don’t be surprised if the urbane Englishman and former Brambles finance director and CEO joins their ranks when his term expires in November 2015.
But who could replace him?
Before the financial planning scandal blew up, former AMP chief executive Andrew Mohl would have been a credible alternative, but he is very closely associated with the conflicted advice model of financial services. Anything less than 95% support tomorrow would cast further doubt on his suitability.
Other directors are also carrying some baggage. Billabong almost went broke while Launa Inman was in charge, and she also didn’t set the world on fire as CEO of Target.
Brian Long was the AMP auditor who signed the 2002 accounts claiming it had net assets of $18 billion when trouble in the UK meant it would have gone broke but for emergency capital raisings and huge write-offs in 2003 led by new CEO Andrew Mohl. Long has also been the lead independent director of Ten Network Holdings since 2010 — and hasn’t that been a disaster.
Career banker Harrison Young is another CBA director, but he was a less-than-successful chairman of NBN Co until March 2013.
Depending how the next few months pan out, CBA could yet follow the model of many companies (ANZ, AMP, BHP, ASX, RIO, etc) and tap someone from outside the board to come on and quickly take on the chairmanship. This is not ideal succession planning but often happens when the incumbents are carrying too much baggage or the existing chairman has failed to groom any credible successors.
*Stephen Mayne is a candidate for the CBA board at Wednesday’s AGM and will be meeting chairman David Turner