The chief executive of Vodafone Group Plc, Arun Sarin, can breathe a little easier after he faced down a shareholder rebellion at the company’s annual general meeting of the world’s largest mobile operator.
The re-election of Sarin was put to a vote, and according to reports, approximately 9.5% voted against him. The three principle dissenters were Hermes Pensions Management, Morley Fund Management, and Standard Life. A further 4.8% abstained from the vote, meaning that Sarin was re-elected after receiving the backing from 85.7% of Vodafone’s shareholders.
While Sarin will be relieved that the silent majority of shareholders voted for him, he must be dismayed that such a sizable minority of investors are now publicly opposed to his management tenure. In total, Vodafone said that about 3.7 billion proxy votes were cast against Sarin with 1.9 billion abstentions. A total of 33.3 billion shares were voted, mostly by proxy.
Sarin has been walking a tightrope with investors of late after he emerged bruised but victorious following a boardroom battle to remove the old-guard elements at the operator who were critical of his management style. Sir Christopher Gent, the man accredited with turning Vodafone from a small mobile UK-based operator into the largest mobile operator in the world, resigned his position as president for life earlier this year.
The AGM also saw the departure of those remaining board members closely associated with Gent, after deputy chief executive Sir Julian Horne-Smith stepped down, as did Penny Hughes, chairman of Vodafone’s remuneration committee. In addition, chairman Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth has retired and has been replaced by former HSBC chief Sir John Bond.
Lord MacLaurin used his departure to reiterate his backing for Sarin, especially when he asked when Sarin would quit. There is no question of Arun Sarin stepping down from the company, he told the AGM, before repeating several times that the Vodafone board was fully united.
Yet is well known that Vodafone investors are deeply unhappy at the financial performance of the operator, which two months ago posted the largest ever loss in UK corporate history. Besides concerns about a sense of drift, investors are upset at the continuing poor performance of the share price.
When Sarin succeeded Gent in December 2002, shares in the Newbury, UK-based operator were at 112 pence ($2.06). Since then they have gone as high as 154.25 pence ($2.83) and as low as 109 pence ($2.00), but the share price on the day of the AGM was still only at 115.25 pence ($2.12). Unfortunately for Sarin, during his four years in charge, the FTSE has risen at least 52%.
During the AGM, Sarin also encountered opposition over the size of the remuneration package for senior management. Almost 20% of shareholders refused to back a proposal to reduce the performance criteria related to bonus awards for senior directors. Vodafone said that 8.5% of the shares cast voted against the remuneration report, with abstentions reaching 10.9%.
Recently, one of Sarin’s key lieutenants, Bill Morrow, head of the European division, unexpectedly announced his departure from the operator. He will be succeeded on an interim basis by Fritz Joussen, who is currently head of Vodafone’s business in Germany.