Business Irish

Friday 21 July 2017

Cook shows everyone who's in charge by taking full control at IL&P meeting

Thomas Molloy

Thomas Molloy

ALAN Cook looked like an idealistic teacher straight from teacher-training college, who had signed up for a tough inner-city school fully of disaffected and lippy students.

Just four weeks into the job, he met those pupils yesterday for the first time and, in time-honoured fashion, they tried to give him a tough ride.

For some time it was not clear whether the teacher would survive, but he did -- outsmarting the bolder pupils by guillotining the lesson and sending them home early and confused.

The new, and almost certainly last, chairman of Irish Life & Permanent (IL&P) bears a striking resemblance to the Duke of Edinburgh -- although his cockney accent suggests he was born some distance from Buckingham Palace.

Despite a string of prestigious positions in the financial services industry, he hasn't chaired a listed company, so it was a new experience for Mr Cook when he stood up to face a small but well organised band of angry shareholders in the RDS, Dublin, yesterday.

An unknown quantity, the pupils started out carefully by calling him "sir" in that peculiar Irish way, which suggests anything other than respect.

Mr Cook batted back pleasantly with platitudes, sometimes answering a question and sometimes ignoring one but never showing the slightest trace of anger or fear.

Perhaps the politest but naughtiest pupil was Piotr Skoczylas, a Russian hedge fund manager who badgered teacher repeatedly with yes-or-no questions designed to put the company in a bad light.

He never got his yes or no.

After an hour of interventions from the floor, Mr Cook called time -- asking for a 30-minute recess to consider a motion from the floor calling for the meeting to be postponed.

At the time, it looked like a fatal move by somebody who did not understand corporate law properly.

In retrospect, it was a turning point that saw Mr Cook grab control of the meeting and ram through the largely technical and tedious motions that he needs to run the company.

After the tea and sandwiches, shareholders trooped back with their individual electronic voting devices, which are becoming increasingly common at shareholder meetings these days.

While the outcome of all these votes is pre-ordained by the pension funds, electronic voting allows management to rub the small shareholder's nose in it by instantly displaying the results on a white board -- a tactic that demoralises the dissidents.

Several people who had been bobbing up and down with questions during the first half of the meeting stalked out after their motions were defeated, leaving teacher with just a small rump of troublemakers.

Voting

The electronic voting did not go down well with the distrustful majority -- although suggestions from dissidents that the many elderly shareholders in the room were unable to press buttons numbered one, two or three were insulting and a tactical mistake.

The votes to reinstate most board members continued apace with an unspoken assumption that there would soon be time for questions.

It was only as the 16th and final vote was carried out and the still smiling Mr Cook started to thank his students for coming, that most people realised school was over.

There were shouts of protest but, in truth, nobody's heart was really in it.

Perhaps it was the realisation that their money was never coming back, or perhaps it was empty stomachs and the afternoon slump, but there was no doubting that teacher left the classroom with his head held up high.

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