- Doug Chia
BlackRock's 2021 VSM: Pretty good for a non-event
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
This year’s virtual annual meetings continue to be snooze fests with few signs of creativity or innovation. I guess we can still use the pandemic as a rationale for taking the path of least resistance on pretty much everything, including personal grooming. So, we’ll probably have to wait until next year to see which companies choose to conduct their annual meetings virtually when they are not forced to and to what extent companies start using the VSM as the shareholder communications and engagement tool that it has the potential to be.
This past Wednesday, May 26 ended up being “Super Wednesday” for annual meetings, with the granddaddy of them all being ExxonMobil’s. Engine No. 1’s victories at the old Standard Oil Co. overshadowed the other VSMs that day, which included BlackRock, Chevron, Amazon.com and Facebook. Even though the 2021 proxy season isn’t over yet, it’s a safe bet that the Exxon Mobil annual meeting will be the undisputed choice for the most significant annual meeting of the year—maybe even of the last 10 years.
Since tons of ink will be spilled on Exxon, Chevron and the others, the one I’m going to call out is BlackRock’s. There was nothing extraordinary about this one. But for a VSM that was fairly routine as far as business goes, I kind of liked it. The meeting actually felt like a real meeting. You know, like the kind we all attend on a daily basis where the boss gets some routine stuff out of the way, then talks for a long time, asks a few other people for updates, and checks to see if anyone has any questions before heading to the next meeting. For the critics from last year who wanted to see more extemporaneous speaking and unscripted answers, they got it at BlackRock’s meeting on Wednesday.
How could I tell the whole thing wasn’t scripted and canned? Larry Fink rambled at times. And he asked other people to speak… including other board members! Before the vote on the election of directors, a shareholder asked a question about why BlackRock’s board is relatively large (16). Larry went on for a while about this and then turned the floor over to the chair of the Nominating, Governance and Sustainability Committee, who also spoke at length to answer the question. Then there was a question from a shareholder about how the directors are compensated. Larry handed that one over to the Lead Independent Director. When it came time for the shareholder proposal, they let the presenter, Rick Alexander, speak for well over the standard three minutes and finish without interruption. During the general Q&A, Larry asked Sandra Boss, Global Head of Investment Stewardship, to answer questions that came in from Scott Shepard and Tim Smith on how BlackRock makes decisions on proxy voting.
BlackRock did a good job some on some other things, too. They solicited and fielded questions on the items of business during the formal portion of the meeting, as opposed to during the Q&A session after the polls are closed and the results are announced. They left the polls open until after the shareholder proponent’s statement and the questions about the items of business were over. They gave the names of the shareholders asking the questions. They didn’t answer every question that came it, but they let the meeting go on for almost an hour and a half, which is generous for a routine meeting.
A Few Nitpicks
The meeting started at 8:00 a.m. EDT, which is pretty rough on shareholders on the West Coast. They weren’t able to get to all the questions during the meeting, and the meeting materials say nothing about whether they are going to post questions any time after the meeting. (I guess I won’t get an answer to my question about whether they are going to dissolve the corporate political action committee.) And they haven’t posted a replay or transcript of the meeting, which they didn’t do last year either. [Update: BlackRock did eventually post a transcript of the meeting.]
Still, as far as non-events go, this was a pretty good one.