Arsenal 2017 AGM: The Chips Are Down

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I am not going to rigorously minute the 2017 AGM for you. Most of the questions and a lot of the answers will be very familiar by now. It’s safe to say that this year’s Annual General Meeting was a more interesting affair than it normally is. I think there are a few points of note before I start to relay the good, the bad and the ugly of a tense affair. Think of it as a prologue of sorts.

Firstly, this was an Annual General Meeting for shareholders. It wasn’t a fans’ forum, or a home match or a supporters’ club event or a Q & A. You probably recognise that, but you would be amazed at the amount of people that don’t understand the distinction. Admittedly, AGMs are typically diluted affairs conducted as an obligatory nod to corporate governance.

But the majority owner does not speak or even appear publicly very often, so shareholders really only have a single recourse to exercise their right to ask questions of the club- the AGM. Obviously, there is some crossover here, there aren’t many small shareholders left, but the ones that exist have generally refused the opportunity to make large profits on their shares.

Most of the people that have refused huge offers for their holding have done so because they are committed fans. One lady described how she had turned down £60,000 for her four shares when Stan Kroenke took the club over because her Grandfather had bought them around 60 years ago. She could expect to make over £80,000 if she sold them now, but still she hangs onto them because she is a fan.

I think these people deserve to be listened to and to be treated with respect when they ask questions of the board of directors. Regardless of what you think of AGMs in the corporate world (and they are generally a bit of a sham), that is a basic courtesy that ought to be executed. Arsenal refer to themselves as a club of class and values and Arsene Wenger referenced this extensively during his address.

I don’t think the Arsenal chairman conducted himself in a manner befitting an organisation that spent a portion of its AGM talking about ‘class’ and ‘values.’ There was a failure of common decency from Sir Chips Keswick, even if it was a testing and stressful affair for him. A chairman ought to be able to keep his composure in the face of a group of shareholders exercising their rights. But anyway, I will come to that. Let’s lighten the mood a little.

THE GOOD
Ivan Gazidis gives a presentation every year on some of the positive initiatives Arsenal are involved with, which is absolutely right. This year, he joked that instead of “death by powerpoint” he would run a small video detailing some of Arsenal’s community projects, its off field investments and, generally, some of the good things the club does that don’t take place on the football pitch.

It is easy and a little tempting to say that an organisation with Arsenal’s revenues bloody well ought to contribute to charitable concerns. But they do and it is easy to lose sight of them and the positive they bring to people’s lives. Admittedly, the heart-warming video got off to an inauspicious start. A graphic detailing Arsenal’s revenue (£424m) was followed by the Legend, “WHERE DOES IT GO?”

The film then cut to an image of Granit Xhaka with the caption “£35m”, which probably didn’t quite land as anticipated given his current form! But alongside player expenditure, renovations to London Colney, Hale End, the new facility for the women’s team, upgrades made to Club Level and new coaching appointments were also highlighted.

There was an interesting piece of VT on Arsenal’s new Sensory Room for fans with special needs, as well as the Innovation Lab. As well as this, local community projects in Islington and in overseas territories such as Iraq took centre stage. When highlighting their academy work, the editor of the film earns bonus points for cutting Eddie Nketiah’s two goal display against Norwich into the mix at such short notice.

Whilst Ivan rather dismissed the idea of introducing home credits to encourage people to fill their seats at the Emirates, he did suggest the club were working on an initiative where people could donate their seat to the Arsenal Foundation in the event that they cannot use it, which I think would be a wonderful innovation.

I’m not entirely clear on why Arsene Wenger attends the AGM every year, but attend he does. It’s obvious why the board want him there, because his speech is always the most generously received part of the day. When he takes the stage and says, “good morning!” the floor responds in kind and the atmosphere feels lighter. There is still a great deal of reverence for Arsene Wenger in settings such as these.

He gave a very nice speech about the values of the club, about respecting its history and how he constantly revisits photos of the 1930s, 50s and 60s to keep himself connected with its heritage. But he admitted, “the weight of the present is heavy.” A minor groan as he closed his speech, I wish he would stop trying to reassure people how hungry and committed he is. I don’t think anyone questions his desire, more his capability.

THE BAD
Bad for the Board of Directors, that is. During the formal part of the meeting, the re-election of Sir Chips Keswick was defeated by a show of hands from the floor. Club Secretary David Miles invited a revote, reminding shareholders that another such vote would force a poll to be taken. Mr. Miles warned that the board were holding proxies worth 97% of the total vote who had voted to re-elect Mr. Keswick.

Nevertheless, the motion was again defeated by a show of hands and proceedings were delayed for around 25 minutes whilst polling cards were handed out and the floor were invited to cast their votes. This was obviously an exercise in futility, but a point was being made. In the absence of a regular audience with the majority owner (who remained mute for the entire meeting) and, well, any other kind of power, the small shareholders elected to exercise the only means left to them to show their dissatisfaction with the governance of the club.

The power to be a pain in the arse and make a point. Obviously, today won’t suddenly make Stan Kroenke more engaged, or consider selling his shares. But it’s well worth shareholders registering their dissatisfaction in any avenue available to them and due to the disengagement of the owner, this is one of the few actions they can take. Despite the significant delay, the small shareholders took exactly the same approach to the re-election of Josh Kroenke.

So again, poll cards were filled out as we were gently reminded that this was all a waste of time because 97% of the votes had already been cast in Josh’s favour. But generally, people don’t wantonly waste their time unless they feel it is necessary to do so. Stan and Josh are insulated from the criticism they receive for their involvement in Arsenal, making them turn and face it for once felt like a worthwhile exercise in my opinion.

The world’s media saw it too, which will cause no small amount of embarrassment. We know for sure now that KSE have made moves to buy Alisher Usmanov’s shares so that events such as the AGM won’t need to happen any longer. There is a sense of hopelessness among fans and shareholders alike, with an absentee owner not interested in selling and not engaged enough to care about what supporters think.

There was very little reference to Stan or Josh Kroenke’s vision for the club. But to be honest, I am fine with that. They don’t care about Arsenal beyond how much money the club makes them and, personally, I am not overly keen on being continually lied to about what big Arsenal fans they are and how ambitious they are about the team.

THE UGLY
I don’t doubt that it was a stressful affair for the chairman to see the small shareholders repudiate his position- even if only conceptually. There was a little heckling from the audience at sporadic intervals, but not with great regularity. “Why not?” a testy audience member demanded, as Sir Chips confirmed Alisher Usmanov would not be invited onto the Arsenal board, for example.

Questions were invited unvetted from the floor. Kevin Whitcher asked if the AGM could be made a little longer next year so that questions from the floor could be given greater consideration. Kev won’t mind me saying his question was barbed, he explicitly told Sir Chips that he chairs AGMs with the air of a man that considers it a huge inconvenience to talk to shareholders.

It’s not a controversial statement on Kev’s part, you can’t fail to pick up on the contempt Keswick holds for the whole occasion really. But I get why it got Sir Chips’ back up a little and why his reply was dismissive, even if I didn’t agree with the approach. Thereafter, Mr. Keswick was addressed by a long term shareholder whose 4 shares have been in her family for over 60 years.

She asked a perfectly reasonable question about the diversity of the board of directors. She pointed out that she has been asking this question for many years (she has) and she has always been furnished with the same answer. “We’ll look into it.” Her tone remained entirely measured when she asked if it has indeed been looked into and Sir Chips refused to provide even a mealy mouthed reply. “Next question,” he demanded on two occasions.

This caused quite a bit of commotion from the floor, including shouts of “resign!” Ivan tried to bring proceedings under control by pleading with the audience to “stop shouting.” Many returned with an obvious riposte, “answer the question then!” Sir Chips again refused. A gentleman politely asked whether Stan Kroenke would address his fellow shareholders and share his vision with them.

That is not on the agenda, sorry. You can read today’s Daily Telegraph if you want to know,” was Keswick’s terse reply. Obviously this did little to quell the disquiet and the chairman abruptly declared the meeting closed. Sir Chips greeted the sound of the consequent booing by inviting people to “write in if you have a problem.”

Whatever you think of KSE, Stan Kroenke’s ownership, Arsene Wenger or the purpose of an AGM, it’s impossible to view Sir Chips’ behaviour charitably. The renewal of the manager’s contract is still a divisive issue, but if you want a real insight into how little Stan Kroenke cares about what you think, that he is presumably happy for Sir Chips to consistently address shareholders like something he wiped off his shoe is a good barometer.

Ultimately, it furthers the impression that the Arsenal board retain a ‘let them all eat cake’ attitude. Even Ivan is going to have his work cut out spinning today’s shit sandwich into ice cream- but at least he and Arsene stayed behind to answer questions after the meeting had closed, while Chips and the Kroenkes slunk off.

If AGMs are merely a PR puff exercise, then this one cannot have gone to plan for the Arsenal board. They were forced to face down the “peasants’ revolt” on Thursday morning. There probably is no way that KSE can row back on the weight of public opinion at this point, so the pursuit of good PR is barely worth their while. But while Sir Chips acts as their bulldog and their mouthpiece in a room full of shareholders, embarrassments like today’s will continue. And that’s not good for the image of Arsenal Football Club.

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