30/04/2008 - 22:00

Thrust and parry at WAN meeting

30/04/2008 - 22:00

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Last week’s WA Newspapers Holdings Ltd extraordinary general meeting was one of those great occasions few get to see until retirement age, if a quick scan of the 800 or so attendees was anything to go by.

Thrust and parry at WAN meeting

Last week’s WA Newspapers Holdings Ltd extraordinary general meeting was one of those great occasions few get to see until retirement age, if a quick scan of the 800 or so attendees was anything to go by.

Arguably, the potential theatre of the occasion was lost close to the beginning of the meeting, when the proxy numbers were flashed up on screen showing an unassailable lead for the incumbents.

After that, it was really just a series of verbal skirmishes, but there was enough to keep things interesting. After all, this was one of the biggest battles for a boardroom we are likely to see.

And, while Kerry Stokes’ balloon was pricked early in proceedings, there is still a lot of entertainment in watching amateur debaters slug it out, microphone to microphone.

The meeting itself was something of a marathon, kicking off at 2.30pm and stretching out till nearly 6pm, partly because there were so many candidates to speak and partly because it took about an hour to get the results tallied.

The beginning of the meeting was generally an even match between criticism and praise of the current board by shareholders around the room. Overall, the mood of the room, reflecting the voting, appeared to be against the change Mr Stokes had called for. However, it was also clear that many thought something needed to give.

There were several uncomfortable moments but perhaps none so much as when Mr Stokes took the stage – at a lectern right beside the incumbent board – already knowing he had lost.

He remained as strident in his damnation of the company as he had been but, with the known result, its effect was also vastly diminished by repetition before an audience well versed in the facts of the case.

There was really nothing new to add from Seven’s side of things.

Perhaps one of the most theatrical moments was a verbal joust between Mayne Report corporate governance activist Stephen Mayne and Mr Stokes over the media magnate’s claims regarding editorial independence.

Mr Mayne, a board candidate, reminded the audience of a controversial moment for Channel Seven when a hard hitting Today Tonight story about then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett was withdrawn from broadcast just before it was due to go to air.

Mr Mayne blamed Mr Stokes.

Known as a litigant, Mr Stokes rose before the audience and told Mr Mayne he thought such statements were defamatory.

It is one of those nightmare scenarios that anyone who has chaired a large public meeting is likely to have endured, especially if emotions run out of control.

As the whole issue deteriorated into farce, Mr Stokes denied he had interfered and pointed out the story had been aired the next day.

Mr Mayne has since reported that the pair had discussed the issue further by telephone after the meeting.

Another minor stoush was started by former distributor Sharon Armour during her candidate’s address to shareholders, returning to her theme of a company that was failing to listen to its agents and their suffering.

While chairman Peter Mansell offered CEO Ken Steinke the opportunity to respond, it was decided to leave that until the vote counting was under way.

Mr Steinke did take the stage later in the afternoon – when most of the audience had gone home bar a few stragglers interested in final numbers – to address the distribution issue.

He made positive noises about sorting the issue out but when Ms Armour rose to the microphone he soon shut down the debate, stating that the EGM was not the forum for that discussion.

Later, Ms Armour privately made the point that she wondered what exactly the right forum was, given she claims to have spent two years trying to get a response from management about her concerns.

Another element of the debate was the voice of small shareholder Bert Reuter, who had paid for advertising prior to the meeting calling for opposition to Mr Stokes’ move.

Mr Reuter is a high-flying name from Perth’s past and, having worked with Robert Holmes a Court in the 1980s, has coincidently had a hand in much of Mr Stokes’ WA business interests these days.

For instance, many readers would recall in the 1980s Mr Holmes a Court’s Bell Group owned, at one stage both Channel Seven Perth and The West Australian, now WAN’s main asset and the object of Mr Stokes’ desire.

When Bell failed after Alan Bond’s ill-fated takeover, Channel Seven Perth was sold to Queensland entrepreneur Christopher Skase’s Qintex Group, which failed soon after.

In 1989, Mr Reuter actually competed with Mr Stokes to buy the Seven Network assets from the Qintex receivers.

Ultimately, Mr Stokes ended up in control of that network, albeit 10 years later in a process that the WAN board reminded its shareholders had similarities to its own predicament.

But Mr Reuter’s links are deeper than that. As part of Mr Holmes a Court’s Bell Group he was closely involved with the Wigmores earthmoving vehicles business, which Mr Stokes later bought and renamed WesTrac.

And all this at just one meeting.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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