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The corridors of power...

Sir Richard Sykes never caused much of a stir in his days running GlaxoSmithKline, but he's making up for it now. His recent suggestion that small shareholders should be banned from agms went down like a lead balloon.

Why, he mused, should a person with a handful of shares be allowed to disrupt an agm while those that count – the institutions – don’t bother turning up? Fair point. But his comments were seized on as an attack on the little man.

As gaffes go, it was up there with Gerald Ratner’s frank remarks about what he really thought of his jewellery.

Sir Richard failed to appreciate just how seriously private shareholders regard the agm. They travel from far and wide for the chance to commandeer the microphone and assail the board with some unintelligible question about scrip issues.

From the company’s perspective, of course, Sir Richard is spot on. The agm is an expensive anachronism, held purely to fulfil a legal requirement.

Much of the chairman’s time is spent trying to maintain an orderly meeting.

Some are better at it than others. Sir Robert Wilson, the chairman of Rio Tinto is a courteous and affable man, but he turns into a monster at the company’s agm. Lord Hanson was similarly ferocious at Hanson Trust.

Far better, surely, to have a series of regional roadshows in which private shareholders get to air their grievances with senior management? This would take the company to its owners – rather than the select few who can make it to London – and provide a useful litmus of opinion.

Big fund managers avoid the agm because they know it will turn into a circus. Provide separate forums for each, and we could be on to something sensible.

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