Duke Energy is getting rid of in-person annual shareholder meetings. This year's meeting will be online only. Duke says it will save shareholders money and travel and reach more people. But Duke's critics don't like the idea.
Corporate annual meetings often attract protests, like last year when about 50 people marched and chanted outside Duke's uptown Charlotte headquarters as the annual meeting started.
Inside, CEO Lynn Good addressed investors about the state of the company and answered questions - some from critics who bought shares for a chance to face her. Then shareholders elected directors, approved executive pay, and voted on shareholder proposals.
But now instead of shareholders, the CEO will speak in front of video cameras at an undisclosed location. Investors will get a password to a special website to watch online.
"We have over a million shareholders across the world and this is an opportunity with this new format for many many more of our shareholders to participate in the annual meeting," spokeswoman Catherine Butler said.
Duke has long allowed shareholders to listen in on the annual meeting via telephone. But if investors wanted, they could come to Charlotte and question the CEO face-to-face.
During this year’s webcast, Good will answer questions chosen from those submitted electronically - and she may get to more than in the past, says Butler. Duke also promises written answers to other questions on its web site later.
A growing number of big companies have switched to virtual annual meetings - among them Sprint, HP and Intel. Federal regulators say the practice is legal. Butler said it will save investors money and travel and let more participate.
"We have talked with a number of shareholders and governance teams about this , and many of those folks are in favor of this change," Butler said.
But not all.
The Council of Individual Investors, which advocates for shareholders, says online-only meetings should be a supplement - not a substitute - to traditional meetings.
Jim Warren of the environmental group NC WARN is a frequent critic of Duke and a regular at its annual meetings. (He and the organization also own a few shares, so they have the right to attend and vote.)
"I think it's an abandonment of the democratic process and Duke Energy's responsibility to the people of the state who give them the permission to operate in North Carolina," Warren said Monday.
In announcing the change, Duke included a comment from shareholder relations expert Carl Hagberg. “Online shareholder meetings are a way to use modern technology to enable more shareholders to attend, ask questions and vote their shares from anywhere in the world,” Hagberg said in a Duke press release.
“Duke Energy’s use of audio and visual components demonstrates its commitment to ensuring that the proceedings are conducted in a careful and transparent way, open to review by all interested parties,” he added.
Duke's annual meeting will be May 4. Besides shareholders, reporters also won't be there - we'll have to watch online just like everyone else.