For spectacle, it is hard to fault Tesla’s annual meeting. Elon Musk bounded on to the stage this week in a T-shirt and casual jacket, with dark circles under his eyes, looking like an aged boy band member — or a hard-charging entrepreneur who sleeps on the factory floor.
For substance and scrutiny of the management? Less impressive. Journalists were barred. There is nothing illegal about that — it is a shareholder meeting — but it is unusual among large US companies. Other more pliant outsiders did have a role, while ordinary investors, as is all too common on Silicon Valley, got shorter shrift.
Tellingly, before the dramatic entry of Mr Musk, the carmaker’s general counsel had raced through what he called “the very boring part”: announcing votes on whether Tesla should have an independent chairman or oust other controversial board members including Elon’s brother Kimball and 21st Century Fox chief executive James Murdoch.
The traditional media was shut out, but social media was ushered in. The show was streamed live and Mr Musk made the assembled shareholders wait as he answered fans on Twitter. The Tesla boss has always been an adept user of the latter platform but he seems to be leaning on it more heavily as a crutch these days: to taunt journalists, find girlfriends — and solicit softball questions.
Yet he does put on a good performance. He choked up as he emoted about how much “we really care”, unlike those dirty gas-guzzling rivals where “there’s no soul”.
And after the Twitter flimflam, Mr Musk did take some substantive questions from investors who made it to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. He said it was “ quite likely” that Tesla would hit its target of producing 5,000 a week of its make-or-break Model 3 by the end of this month. Perhaps more telling was his reminder that few mass-market carmakers have endured. “It’s insanely hard just staying alive.”
For all Tesla’s weaknesses, most other Big Tech companies are worse. Alphabet’s chief executive Larry Page and co-founder Sergey Brin did not show up to their meeting. Mark Zuckerberg was at Facebook and indulged a few questions but some investors complained they did not get a fair hearing. When founders have super voting rights, investors have to be especially bloody-minded to try to hold them to account. The fact that a significant majority of independent shareholders voted to demand equal rights at Facebook counts as a loud protest.
Worst of all was Netflix, which held an online-only meeting on Thursday, a terrible trend that allows companies to silence dissent. Shareholders who did manage to mount a proposal, and so secure a hearing, complained, rightly, that Netflix directors typically get an unusually dismal vote and yet have the brass neck to stick around. In 2015, the last time he was up for re-election, tech entrepreneur Richard Barton even managed to get less than 50 per cent of the vote — yet Netflix’s funky bylaws and apparent indifference to shareholder views mean he is still on the board. After that, chief executive Reed Hastings answered three random questions in desultory fashion.
One possible path to better accountability was on display at Alphabet’s annual meeting. Irene Knapp, a Google engineer, put forward a defeated proposal that the board link executive pay to company diversity. Tech companies dole out a lot of shares to employees; if they start using them like this, their views will be harder to ignore.
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