It’s a Monday morning and I’m in my bank branch sorting through documents when someone loudly demands to see the manager.
The bank has “screwed up” his investments, he shouts. He’s angry and he wants answers.
The problem is, it’s not the manager’s fault. His issue goes far higher up the food chain.
He sums up the gripe so many of us have with banks and big business. We feel beholden to corporate cowboys who view us as cash registers, not customers.
We are relieved at calls for royal commissions and crackdowns. Finally, we think, they will feel the pain we do.
But you don’t need to wait for an inquiry – you can change business yourself.
Most of us forget, especially when passed between call centres, that each of us own these companies. Yes, we are shareholders of banking, property, airline and mining companies. About 50 per cent of all shares on the ASX are owned by the average Australian directly or through superannuation funds.
That is some serious muscle to flex.
Every year companies face shareholders to take questions and go through their performance. As one director told me, if anyone has an issue with a company “all they need is five shares, a voice and the willingness to go to the annual general meeting”.
If you attend you have the power to ask questions to the CEO. Yes, they really are accountable to you.
Feel like you’re being ignored by staff? You might as well go to the AGM.
As I’ve previously discussed, there are serious culture questions facing business. Of course businesses has to make profits, but they also have to maintain the support of their shareholders and the community at large.
This is called a ‘social license’. It’s a vague term but basically means what business can do before they are told off. Billion-dollar profits, multi-million-dollar pay cheques and apparent cuts to service at the banks push the limits of this social licence.
I recently spoke to an executive who is genuinely concerned about the anger business is facing. “We are testing the patience of the public, our customers and our staff,” I was told.
Businesses always have to grow, but are massive profits and bonuses really necessary? It feels like they are taking us for a ride.
Jumping on the bandwagon, politicians haul the banks before parliamentary committees to grill them on their misdeeds. But they don’t go deep enough to understand the cause of our frustration.
Sadly, inquiries are often toothless tigers. They take years to get anywhere and don’t always achieve what we want.
To get immediate action, you should go to the AGM and grill the bosses yourself.
Normally they only hear from big-time investors hungry for quick results. It is this attitude that pushes companies to sacrifice long-term gains for quick wins. Most of us are loyal shareholders and want our nest egg to grow carefully over a decade or two.
Don’t be put off. Your voice is just as relevant as the big guys’. To have real impact on the way a business runs and how they interact with customers you need to get out in front.
You can ask for inquiries all you like, but if you want to get action right now, use your voice as a shareholder.
Conrad Liveris is a corporate adviser on workplaces and risk. He holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Certificate in Governance and Risk Management and a Master of Commerce.