By Nina Trentmann 

Some of the companies that are once again hosting their annual shareholder meetings virtually this year are hoping to improve the experience for investors, many of whom felt muted last year after the sudden shift to remote technology.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and Dutch software and services company Wolters Kluwer NV are among the companies working to increase interaction with their shareholders, from allowing investors to pose live questions and interact with management, allocating more time for questions to incorporating new videoconferencing tools.

The bulk of annual investor meetings -- which take months of preparation -- usually is held between mid-April and June. Last spring, many businesses abruptly switched to remote events after lockdown orders and restrictions were put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The last-minute changes to a virtual format resulted in shorter meetings, fewer direct questions and technical glitches that prevented some shareholders from voting.

This year, 346 companies, or 86% of a total of 403 in the S&P 500 that filed their proxy statement through April 22, said they would hold their annual shareholder meeting remotely as large physical gatherings remain restricted, according to data provider MyLogIQ.

Many of these companies say they are better prepared for virtual meetings. Their efforts also come as many investor-relations departments look for new ways to connect with more shareholders to address the recent surge in individual investing.

"Investors expect public companies to do a better job this year of providing meaningful ways for their shareholders to participate in virtual annual meetings," said Amy Borrus, executive director at the Council of Institutional Investors, an investor group representing pension funds and other big money managers. "Unlike last proxy season, corporate executives have had a year to plan and work out any kinks."

Berkshire Hathaway, which used to welcome tens of thousands of investors a year to Omaha, Neb., for instance, will allocate 3 1/2 hours for Q&A during its annual event on May 1.

That amount of time is unusual, said Miriam Schwartz-Ziv, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has researched virtual shareholder meetings. Still, for Berkshire, the 2 1/2 hours of Q&A at last year's event was less than half the time it allocated for previous in-person events, she said. The company didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. securities regulators also are watching closely, even though annual shareholder meetings are largely governed by state law. "We strongly encourage companies to look at virtual meetings as an opportunity to enhance but not stifle shareholder participation and voting," John Coates, acting director of the corporate finance division at the Securities and Exchange Commission, said at a conference last week.

New York-based Pfizer accepted both live questions and advance submissions during its meeting on Thursday, an improvement from last year, when questions had to be filed ahead using an online platform. Pfizer also offered a video stream of the chairman's and management team's speeches, as opposed to the audio-only platform last year, according to a spokeswoman. "We have designed our meeting to align with the in-person meeting as much as possible," she said.

Netherlands-based Wolters Kluwer last week allowed shareholders to ask questions in real time. In 2020, people had to submit questions in advance with a moderator reading all of them during the meeting, Chief Financial Officer Kevin Entricken said.

The shift to a virtual format last year resulted in overall shorter meetings with less time for questions from investors. Shareholder meetings at a sample 125 companies in the S&P 500 in 2020 lasted about 32.7 minutes on average, 17% shorter than the physical event the year before, according to a recent study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The time allocated for questions and answers went down by 16% and companies on average spent 2 minutes answering a question, compared with 2.6 minutes during the prior year, the study found. "The quality of the participation at online meetings is very limited," said Ms. Schwartz-Ziv, the author of the study. "There is no dialogue in an online meeting."

Companies that provide the technology used for the meetings point to improvements, including better live video streams and the ability to identify shareholders more easily. "A year later, we are all experts in virtual meetings," said Sherry Moreland, chief operating officer at Mediant Communications Inc., one of the technology providers. "We now know how to use the technology."

Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc., a provider of investing, governance and communications tools, recently overhauled its platform to offer Zoom-like video functionality, better planning instruments and more options for Q&A. Most of the company's U.S. clients have been transferred to the new product, Broadridge said.

Virtual shareholder meetings have several advantages for companies. They cost less and don't take up as much time in executive calendars as in-person events. Hosting the event remotely also can make it easier for more investors to attend.

Some companies already are exploring new formats to communicate with individual investors, including hosting events on Clubhouse, the audio-discussion app. "We called it an 'ask me anything' meeting," CarParts. Com Inc. CFO and COO David Meniane said. The auto-parts retailer said about 2,100 investors and others attended its 40-minute-long session.

Oral-care company SmileDirectClub Inc. plans to host an event via Clubhouse around its next earnings release, CFO Kyle Wailes said. "There are a variety of Q&A sessions that we have seen work well for other companies," he said.

Many companies still haven't decided how their investor events will look like once the pandemic has abated. Some of them plan to return to an in-person meeting, while others are leaning toward hosting a hybrid or an online-only event.

Toy maker Hasbro Inc. expects to go back to a physical event, said CFO Deborah Thomas. "We think it's good practice," Ms. Thomas said, referring to having an in-person shareholder meeting.

-- Mark Maurer contributed to this article.

Write to Nina Trentmann at Nina.Trentmann@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 26, 2021 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

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