Sucheta Dalal :New: Unilever puts heat on its big investors
Sucheta Dalal

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New: Unilever puts heat on its big investors  

August 8, 2003


Unilever puts heat on its big investors

By Adam Jones, Consumer Industries Correspondent

Published: August 6 2003 5:00 | Last Updated: August 6 2003 5:00

Unilever has turned the corporate governance debate on its head by asking 10 of its major shareholders to account for their failure to register their votes at its last annual meeting.

The Anglo-Dutch group's unorthodox questioning of its own shareholders will add to the pressure on institutional investors to be more active custodians of their clients' money.

The company is also investigating why some votes cast by institutions went astray and has invited the Department of Trade and Industry to observe part of its inquiry.

Unilever - which makes Lipton tea, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Dove soap and other household products - was told by three of the 10 shareholders that they had tried to vote but the balloting process somehow failed.

Unilever's inquiries could have wider implications for the way shareholders vote at annual meetings. Whereas chief executives had previously been taking the brunt of external scrutiny and calls for reform, investors are now increasingly being asked to justify their own performance in overseeing boardrooms.

Unilever's latest contribution to the corporate governance debate challenges the conventional wisdom that says companies are happiest when their investors stay silent.

Unilever wrote to the 10 unnamed institutional shareholders after an uneventful annual meeting in May, asking them why they had missed the vote.

"In the current corporate governance climate we wondered whether this was for policy reasons or whether there were technical reasons," the letter said. It said Unilever was keen for institutional shareholders to register their views and "would welcome the chance to talk this issue through".

Unilever's approach is in line with the views expressed by Paul Myners, the former chief executive of Gartmore, the London-based fund manager. He led a review of institutional investment for the government that reported in 2001. The Myners report strongly encouraged pension fund managers to be more active, although it stopped short of recommending that voting at company annual meetings should be compulsory.

The government threatened to impose legislation, but leading fund managers drew up an industry code to address concerns over perceived complacency.

This year has seen several investor rebellions against executive pay deals put to company annual meetings, most notably at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceuticals group.

Unilever has conducted an investigation into the three instances in which investors said they had given instructions for a vote to be cast at the meeting - only for it not to register.

-- Sucheta Dalal