Attending the Imperial AGM
It employs 32,000 people and earned £8bn on its products – but fewer than 30 people showed up for Imperial Brands annual general meeting this week.
The board members sat almost hidden on a dais while numerous staff members with undefined roles but helpful faces outnumbered those in the audience.
It has been a difficult year for Imperial with both the chief executive officer Alison Cooper and chairman Mark Williams stepping down. Thérèse Esperdy, who became chairman in January, paid tribute to both in her opening statement before talking briefly about incoming CEO Stefan Bomhard. She highlighted his experience in consumer companies and particularly his expertise in “brand building” and “transformational change”. The former car salesman will earn £900,000 a year more than his female predecessor.[i]
Chief financial officer Oliver Tant gave an overview of the year. There were no fireworks in his sober analysis which highlighted that its next generation products (NGPs) had not performed as well as hoped. Nonetheless Tant said that NGPs still offer “significant additive growth” and “tobacco will continue to be resilient”. Tant’s voice briefly soared from its monotone as he highlighted how an independent panel had praised the company’s sustainability agenda. He sat down to silence.
Listed companies are required to hold AGMs and shareholders are entitled to attend and ask questions as well as vote on areas such as appointments. With most shares held by large investors only a few individuals bothered to show up. The venue was a bland corporate hotel in central Bristol with an overwhelming orange colour theme and geometric patterns that made one think it had been designed by Donald Trump after watching The Shining.
Though the meeting took less than half an hour, it did allow people to ask questions of the tobacco firm’s board about its policies and practices.
Long-term tobacco activist Cecilia Farren asked about the company’s activities and these were swiftly batted away by Esperdy and Joerg Biebernick. The latter is one of the joint CEOs until Bomhard takes up his post.
It wasn’t until the board was asked if Alison Cooper had stepped down because she hadn’t killed enough people that Espardy’s neutral politeness cracked. “Do you have a legitimate question,” she asked Farren, amid some heckling from an audience member.
A shareholder then asked about cannabis company investments. “Very small,” said Espardy. “They are test and learn investments.”
In previous years Imperial had disclosed it funded think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). Asked this year Biebernick at first said they did not reveal such information and anyway the amounts were “minor”. When pressed he said it funded the CBI and tobacco front group Forest and no-one else “to the best of my knowledge”. That is unusual considering the IEA’s access to Downing Street is at its strongest for many years following Boris Johnson’s election.[ii]
ASH has received evidence that free e-cigarette samples of the Imperial e-cigarette brand Blu have been given outside sites such as Guy’s hospital in London. “We would be very disturbed if that was happening,” said Espardy. “Please send us any evidence you have.”
Much as Western spies would deconstruct the latest statements from the Kremlin to ascertain who was up and who was out, so the language of AGMs can help signal the different tactics and strategies being adopted by corporate politburos. In a question about standardised packaging the board said that in the UK there has been a steady long-term volume decline and that did not change after plain packaging rules came in – so the law was pointless. Which is rewriting of its arguments at the time[iii] and also manages to get the message across that regulations are not effective.
The innings continued with questions about profitability and smuggling given a straight bat while one asking for the company’s commitment to climate change was smashed over the boundary. An eager member of staff went over to see the questioner afterwards. There was laughter when a questioner apologised for the complexity of what he was asking, explaining he was an economist.
The only time the defence was troubled was repeated probing on the firm’s new Rizla infusion cards. ASH says these are a breach of both the letter and spirit of the law coming into force banning menthol flavoured tobacco to protect children.
“Yes, they are legal given the scientific evidence we have,” insisted Biebernick, as forceful as it is possible to be from a sedentary position, hidden behind a microphone and a high table. “We support choice. They are made with the highest ingredients compared with counterfeit products.”
Espardey cut in with her most severe voice: “They are geared towards an adult consumer.”
And then we are done. The staff loiter uncertainly while the board huddles in small groups. Outside, chauffeur driven cars line up. We tick the boxes on our ballot papers and drop them in a ballot box. It looks like a democratic process, but it isn’t.
[ii] The Guardian. How the right’s radical thinktanks reshaped the Conservative Party. 2019.