Facing huge video screens and raked by spotlights, thousands of small-time shareholders encountered big business for the first time Wednesday.
It was like a pop contest without songs when the board of telecommunications giant British Telecom held court for investors in the former state telephone monopoly.
The company was sold off to the public by the Conservative government in the world’s biggest stock flotation last November--and in theory 1.7 million shareholders could have attended Thursday’s annual meeting.
Short of taking over dozens of soccer stadiums, the best answer for the recently privatized company was to hire Britain’s biggest conference hall, the International Arena outside this Midlands city. The arena has a seating capacity of 12,000, but officials said only about 5,000 shareholders came here by train, car and even bicycles.
It was still the biggest and certainly the strangest company meeting ever staged in this country, according to the officials.
British Telecom spent $685,000 converting the hall into a high-technology circus of flashing lights and stereophonic sound.
Chairman Sir George Jefferson addressed the meeting from a podium bathed in fluorescent blue as his image appeared on the video screen.
On a platform below him, a spot-lit woman illustrated his words in sign language for deaf shareholders. Investors in wheelchairs were given their own area in the hall.
“We are, I believe, the first British company to produce an audio cassette tape of its report and accounts specially for the blind,” Sir George said.
In what might be called a cross-section of British society, ladies in high-fashion hats sat alongside youths in jeans, and sober-suited businessmen rubbed shoulders with young women in tight skirts.
Questioners were ushered into transparent booths to pose their problems while their faces were flashed onto the screens.
Small shareholders have little say in the running of large enterprises, but one official said they were wooed by British Telecom because they could have “nuisance value” if they banded together.
Jefferson came under attack from the floor during the three-hour meeting, with one shareholder denouncing the board as “a miserable lot.”
Most complaints were against high salaries and share-option schemes enjoyed by board members. But Jefferson defended himself vigorously, saying the company needed incentives at its highest level.
Investors have seen a profit of more than 100% since the flotation, and the company recorded a $2.02-billion profit in its first full-year result.