AGMs, touted as the pinnacle of transparency, turned out to be elusive, frustrating, and at times, downright comical. Join me on a deeply personal and critical journey as I peel back the layers of the AGM experience, highlighting the emotional turbulence and persistent pursuit of truth.
A rollercoaster of emotions: To block or not to block?
The veil of secrecy extended beyond the walls of the AGM room, leaving me feeling like an outsider in search of a forbidden treasure. Countless companies conveniently overlooked the presence of journalists, selectively inviting a privileged few to deliver their tailored narratives.
Left with limited options, I found myself either investing my own hard-earned money to acquire shares of interest or relying on my connections with stockbrokers and investors to secure proxy rights. But even then, gaining access was far from guaranteed.
Picture this, my portfolio boasts 10 carefully selected stocks, yet I received a mere three email invitations for this year's AGM season. Conversations with Vuong Nam, a broker at Mirae Asset Vietnam Securities, exposed the disheartening truth that this was an all-too-common occurrence.
When brokerage firms inquired about the lack of invitations, companies conveniently blamed the postal service, claiming invitations were lost in transit. Year after year, this dance of evasion persisted, leaving investors and journalists alike to scour websites for morsels of information.
The struggle didn't end with securing an invitation. Numerous companies, in a bid to preserve the illusion of exclusivity, set ownership conditions that effectively silenced smaller shareholders. Only those who owned a minimum of 2,000 shares were granted entry, while the rest of us were relegated to the fringes, treated as inconsequential observers.
The fine art of journalistic care
Some companies went to extraordinary lengths to ensure journalists remained mere spectators, denying us the opportunity to dig beneath the glossy surface.
An anonymous communications director from a construction company revealed their cloak-and-dagger approach, "We meticulously scrutinise the shareholder list, singling out the smaller, newer names. If we find that their contact addresses match those of media organisations, we immediately alert the leadership and the team, assigning someone to keep a watchful eye on them."
It was a bittersweet mix of amusement and frustration, realising we were viewed as potential troublemakers rather than truth-seekers.
Even when we managed to overcome these hurdles and check-in successfully, our ability to extract meaningful information was systematically stifled. The chairpersons, who held the reins of power during the AGMs, tightly controlled the Q&A sessions, prioritising questions from larger, more familiar shareholders.
This biased approach left little room for genuine engagement or the revelation of pertinent internal matters. Additionally, AGMs often featured imbalanced schedules, with excessive time allocated to procedural formalities or the rehashing of previously published reports, effectively curtailing shareholders' right to question company executives.
Case studies: Transparency and empathy triumph
Amidst the labyrinth of obfuscation, a few AGMs pierced through the veil, leaving an indelible mark on my soul.
At the 2023 AGM of Dabaco Corporation, chairman Nguyen Nhu So offered a rare moment of candidness. He shared the company's hardships, confessing a staggering loss of $3.4 million in the last quarter of 2022 and a meagre annual profit of only $226,000, a devastating 99 per cent decline compared to the previous year.
Dabaco had weathered the dual storms of African swine fever and the pandemic-induced economic downturn, leaving shareholders reeling with empathy and a glimmer of hope for the company's resurgence.
Unlike other gatherings, Bamboo Capital Group's (BCG) leadership showcased an unwavering commitment to transparency and genuine engagement. In a departure from the common practice of allowing a select few favourite shareholders to pose multiple questions at once, BCG's approach was refreshingly different.
They embraced an individualised Q&A format that prioritised fairness and inclusivity, giving each shareholder the opportunity to have their concerns addressed directly. They broke free from the mould, accepting questions from shareholders one by one, including those brought forward by journalists.
From inquiries about the ever-changing regulatory legal framework to concerns about the company's strategic direction, no topic was off-limits. What also impressed me was the board’s ability to articulate their responses with utmost clarity, even when communicating in English. Their fluency and command of English surpassed that of many directors in the Vietnamese market, making them stand out on an international stage.
As I stepped into the AGM 2023 of ACB, a profound sense of empathy permeated the air. The shareholders, united by their unwavering support for the bank, shared stories of resilience and loyalty. Through tearful testimonials and heartfelt exchanges, I witnessed a genuine sense of camaraderie and a deep-seated connection between the shareholders and the institution they believed in.
Listening to their tales of investing in ACB when it was still finding its footing, I couldn't help but be moved by the deep emotional connection they had forged with the bank. In this poignant gathering, I realised that ACB's success was not just about financial figures and market performance. It was about the unwavering loyalty and enduring belief of these elder shareholders who had witnessed the bank's journey from struggling underdog to emerging leader.
Their presence served as a powerful reminder that businesses are not just about profits and losses; they are about the human stories and connections that shape them.
These AGMs remind me that openness, empathy, and a genuine willingness to listen are the building blocks of a robust corporate culture that not only values shareholders but cherishes the human connections that lie at the heart of every business.
The AGM journey, laden with emotion, has taught me the power of transparency and the value of its relentless pursuit. It is imperative that companies cast aside the shackles of secrecy and embrace genuine openness, creating a platform for true dialogue between shareholders and the leadership.
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