On Wednesday 7 February 2018, long-time activist Cecilia Farren attended the Imperial Brands AGM. Below is her report.
I’ve been attending Imperial Brands/Tobacco AGM for about 20 years. Usually alone but occasionally we gathered a group of demonstrators protesting outside with placards. One year the then CEO, Gareth Davis, had stated under oath that it was unproven that smoking caused cancer. We stood outside the AGM wearing pig masks and wings with placards saying ‘Yes Gareth, pigs can fly’ and ‘Gareth for President — of the Flat Earth Society’. This year, I was on my own but looked forward to meeting up with the other ‘protest’ shareholder, a retired teacher from Oxfordshire who worked in Africa. He attends every year to challenge the Board with well-researched questions about Imperial’s proud claims of profit and expansion into the third world. As always we sat together in solidarity. He’s the ‘good cop’ who politely asks his questions and I am the ‘bad cop’ who gets heckled by shareholders and treated impatiently by the board when I question them and show my annoyance at their non-committal replies.
AGMs in the past were a fug of smoke and offered the large attendance of shareholders complimentary cigarette packs, gifts (I still have Lambert and Butler umbrella), attentive staff serving us cakes and tea, and board members mingling and chatting. It is a very different affair now. It is a sombre, poorly attended event and it is hard to believe that Imperial Brands is a FTSE 100 company. Imperial board and support staff outnumbered the 27 shareholders present. Even Imperial’s CEO, Alison Cooper, looked stressed and tired.
The 2017 Annual Report has the title ‘Investing for Growth’ and it begins with the boast: “Our business is built on great brands and great people. Our brands are recognised and enjoyed by millions of people around the world. And our people are focused on creating the great moments that bring our business to life on a daily basis.” Yuk! One page is titled: ‘Market Repeatable Model’ and is full of ‘jargon generator’ management-speak headings such as: ‘Quality Market Share Growth’, ‘Core Range Everywhere All the Time’, ‘Honest Accurate Learning’ and ‘Tailor Customer Solutions’.
Proceedings were opened with an introduction from Chairman, Mark Williamson who then handed over to CEO Alison Cooper. The nearest we came to hearing that tobacco control is making progress was Ms. Cooper’s acknowledgement that Imperial has had a positive performance in the UK despite ‘difficult times’. But she did say that Imperial has regained market leadership. Emphasis was put on Imperial’s BIG push into ‘next generation’ products — vaping, heated tobacco products and snus. Imperial has recently bought Nerudia, a Liverpool based company that makes e-liquids.
Shareholders were invited to ask questions. I began by asking about SEATCA’s campaign to call Imperial to account for not complying with the law to put the 75% pictorial warnings on cigarette packets in Lao PDR. Lao Tobacco is controlled by Imperial. Matthew Phillips, a member of the Board, insisted that they had complied with the law since the third and final deadline of December 2017. I said that they had not and they said they had. Stalemate! A question about paying tax other than excise tax both in UK and elsewhere was met with insistence that tax is paid everywhere in the world. They admitted that excise tax does cost the company money because the higher the tax on cigarettes the less people smoke. This is an admission of a successful tobacco control strategy! I also asked if they were worried about the many large banks and pension funds that have divested from tobacco. They replied that they had plenty of investors and were not concerned.
Imperial’s AGM lasted less than an hour. I got on my bike while a fleet of Mercedes sat waiting for Imperial’s big shots.