Insight day attendee Mitch Durrant was given the opportunity to attend Aviva's AGM, find out what he learnt and how it confirmed his choice in pursuing a career as a Company Secretary.
In summary, attending the Annual General Meeting of Aviva plc, in Westminster’s impressive Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, was a fantastic experience. It allowed me to learn more about the company secretarial career, working in-house, and it contextualised large parts of the education from my Master’s degree. I read my Masters in Corporate Governance at the University of Portsmouth and am now pursuing a career as a company secretary. The AGM demonstrated the importance in this career of topics such as shareholder democracy, corporate strategy, corporate social responsibility, directors’ remuneration and more. This obviously makes me feel a lot better about spending that whole year studying in the library while my friends were off travelling the world, ‘discovering themselves’. I’m not bitter.
I have decided to split this blog into sections, with each section referring to the events at the AGM in the context of some governance topics. Hopefully this makes for more interesting reading for those of you currently studying or pursuing a career in this area and, if it doesn’t and you want to get back to your Facebook news feed, then you can skip to the topics which interest you most and still learn something about this successful FTSE 100 company. I won’t be offended.
Before the AGM started, we were taken to the first floor where there was a buzz of activity. The large space was filled by neatly lined digital display screens, each with their own team of specialist staff and with each display representing a different aspect of Aviva’s business. The Aviva staff, in their distinctive yellow t-shirts, were keen to share information about their latest projects and they made engaging with the mass of shareholders look easy. I started to get a real idea of Aviva’s business model after the third display but, what I was not expecting, was to get an idea of the successful culture behind Aviva, and the person who has shaped it, from the very first conversation with a member of Aviva’s staff.
Successful governance is synonymous with successful leadership. If governance of a public limited company is the remit of its board of directors, then the leadership is the task of its Chief Executive Officer (thank you, textbooks). I spoke with six different members of the Aviva staff on the first floor, before the AGM, and all six told me about the great leadership of CEO Mark Wilson. The thing which was repeated to me was that, since becoming CEO in 2013, Wilson has brought a huge cultural alignment to Aviva through a highly focused strategy which clearly pervades through each area of the company to integrate its business. I was impressed after the exchanges and it became clear that I was seeing, for the first time, what a company with a successful board looks like. I can only explain it as a style of leadership and governance that creates a synergy so that the projects and departments, although varied, align with each other by sharing the same sense of purpose and direction.
Gail McGrath from Aviva’s company secretarial department was taking care of our visiting group. After she had given us some of her own useful insights and introduced us to a great many of the Aviva staff, we were making our way down to the ground floor for the AGM.
From the first floor, we were taken to The Churchill: the large and impressive room where the AGM was to take place. There was an audience of over three hundred shareholders, all keen to hear from the board about their company’s performance and its future direction. The presentation to the shareholders, or the ‘owners’ of the company (textbooks), and the questions and answers which followed was my first experience witnessing shareholder democracy in action.
The presentations did not disappoint. Wilson lived up to his reputation as a successful leader and is, quite simply, a gifted orator. His presentation defined the purpose of Aviva, as a leading insurer of immense scale, he then set the parameters of the company and its operations from this purpose. Aviva’s purpose is simply helping people, the company paid over £34bn in claims in 2016 which is over £100m paid out each day for that year. The presentation included a video of some of the calls taken by the Aviva staff, showing how the insurer was there for its customers when things went wrong. The presentation then included a summary of Aviva’s strategy, the company’s continued commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (by being ‘a good ancestor’) and then a summary of the success Aviva has experienced in the last few years backed up by evidence and figures.
Sir Adrian Montague, Chairman, began his presentation with a conversation with the Amazon echo’s Alexa. It was a very entertaining start, incorporating latest technology, as the Alexa had been skilled with insurance information and answered technical questions, defining insurance terms such as an ‘act of God’ and ‘duty to disclose’. I thought this was one of the most interesting areas of the presentation as it highlighted Aviva’s ‘digital first’ strategy. As summarised by Wilson, Aviva’s goal is to be a ‘321-year-old digital disrupter’. Aviva believes in the massive potential of the digital age and is entering new territory: entering partnerships with an enormous Chinese digital company (TenCent), gearing up to insure cyber space and working with rising tech companies such as Cocoon which specialise in home security systems. From the presentations, I learned that Aviva is clearly in capable hands and seemingly moving in a strong direction, under the combined stewardship of CEO Mark Wilson, Chairman Sir Adrian Montague and the other members of the board.
After the presentations, the floor was open to questions from shareholders. Each shareholder was permitted three questions to ask the board. Most of the questions, some of which were very technical, created a very interesting dialogue which allowed those present to get a deeper understanding of the company and its operations. The thing that surprised and impressed me was that, no matter how technical the questions were, the board could answer them quickly and completely. The question and answer session ended, signalling the official end of the AGM. The shareholders were then invited to cast their ballots on the issues up for vote. Aviva has over 4bn shares in issue and it subsequently announced after the AGM that all resolutions were passed.
We then made our way back upstairs to meet some more of the company secretarial team. We first met Marsha Rennie who works as a Chartered Secretary and started her career with Aviva in 2013. The feedback about her career was all extremely positive with an emphasis on training and a steady progression through a strong and supportive team. This was all fantastic to hear, especially from a fellow Portsmouth graduate who gained her chartered status last year. We were lucky enough to be introduced to Aviva’s Company Secretary Kirstine Cooper and then to meet and have a full discussion with Roy Tooley, Head of Secretariat - Corporate and Julian Baddeley, Deputy Company Secretary & Corporate Counsel. The talks were illuminating and demonstrated just how much work was done by the company secretarial team, leading up to the event and then on the day, to make the event a success. Finally, we met Alex Haynes who joined Aviva in January as part of the Legal Entity Governance Team. He started his career in 2015 in professional services with PwC. He told us the main difference between the two areas of company secretarial work was that, working in-house, you were able to work on projects from the beginning and see their fruition which is not something you can necessarily do working in professional services.
I would like to say a big thank you to Aviva and to David Press and Rory Strong, from DMJ Recruitment, for securing me a place at the AGM. It was a great experience.
Mitch Durrant, Graduate University of Portsmouth