Comcast virtual shareholders' meeting draws heat from activist investors

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Comcast said holding the annual shareholder meeting online is more economical, but activist investors aren't buying it.

As it convenes its second online-only annual shareholders' event today, Comcast is drawing heat from dissonant investors who are unhappy with the format. 

“We do not believe it is too much to ask Comcast directors to show up once a year at the [annual shareholder meeting] to meet and interact face-to-face with the share-owners of the company they represent,” Jeffery Perkins, executive director of the Friends Fiduciary, told the Philadelphia Inquirer

“This is the opportunity for shareholders to have a voice,” added Tom McCaney, the associate director of corporate social responsibility for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. “It’s the only voice we have.”

Comcast is not alone in conducting virtual shareholder meetings. A handful of other publicly traded companies, including Ford Motor, Alaska Air, Duke Energy, ConocoPhillips and the GEO Group, a private prison operator, are doing the same thing this year. 

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Comcast says the virtual format is far more economical than conducting events at the Wells Fargo Center, the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Kimmel Center—venues in which the cable operator had conducted shareholder events in recent years. 

“The [virtual meeting] we held last year was very efficient and we had higher attendance than the prior year,” Comcast spokesman John Demming said to the Inquirer. 

But dissonant shareholders say the format is just an excuse for Comcast executives to screen and avoid questions, such as those revolving around the issue of the company’s corporate directors’ compensation, which totaled $5.7 million for representing shareholders. 

Last year, shareholders proposed that Comcast conduct a hybrid meeting, allowing some investors to attend the event live. According to the The New York Times, Comcast received permission from the Securities and Exchange Commission to exclude the proposal from its proxy. 

For his part, Demming said that Comcast’s top executives maintain extensive dialog with institutional shareholders over the course of each year. He also said that Comcast has enacted a governance change called “proxy access,” which allows a group of 20 shareholders who collectively own 3% of the company’s stock to nominate two directors to the board.