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Can we have a drum roll please ...

Friday 19th December 2003

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The Harry Flashman Yellow Ribbon for Corporate Spinelessness is a new award recognising that the days when the chairman and the board ran companies are drawing to a close. These days the job is increasingly done by pressure groups, consultancy tarts touting politically correct twaddle and schoolmarm social engineers sitting on the government's front bench.

The inaugural award went to a late entrant but the strength of its case left judges breathless. In a shameless display, Contact Energy's independent directors prostituted themselves to the Shareholders' Association, signing away their future colleagues' right to a pension. In an obvious effort to forestall any unseemly bad publicity while majority shareholder Edison Mission Energy is trying to flog off the company, chairman Phil Pryke even went so far as to sign up as an association member.

Close runner-up: biscuitmaker Arnott's for caving in to pressure from "The People's Moratorium Enforcement Agency" (who?) to go beyond the law and "actively source non-GE ingredients," as announced in gloating PMEA press release.

Thank heavens there's still one company that deals to shareholders in the old style. The Nero Gold Medal for Executive Opulence goes to Tower, which is cancelling the share scheme under which executives got an interest-free, eight-year loan to buy shares at $5.65. The 1.4 million shares on issue under the scheme will be sold onmarket and the proceeds used to reduce the loans. The bill for the shortfall, which at a share price of $1.26 comes to $6.1 million, will be footed by shareholders, the value of whose investment has this year shrunk 40% following a 58% plunge in 2002.

This year's Bill Clinton Cigar for Industrial-strength Porky-telling goes to Telecom chairman Rod Deane. Dr Deane told the annual meeting that regulating access to Telecom's network was like ordering a farmer to let other farmers use his milking shed. As an economist Dr Deane knows as well as anyone the analogy is spurious ­ last time Shoeshine looked there was more than one milking shed in New Zealand but only one wire going into his house. More fool some media for reporting it.

The McSkimmings S-Bend Award for shareholder wealth disposal can go only to AMP for its "shock and awe" achievement of blowing $6.7 billion on its British acquisitions. The million-odd folk embedded on the share register will remember fondly one George Trumbull, the American former chief executive who spent the money and left with a $15 million handshake for his efforts. Runner-up goes to fellow former mutual Tower Ltd for copping a $135 million writedown as a result of neglecting to amortise for four years.

The Betamax Trophy for the Worst Business Plan doesn't attract as many high-class contenders as it did during the heady days of the tech boom. So judges had to content themselves with bestowing the honour on Guinness Peat Group for a high headline count, zero-profit strategy of involving itself in the forestry sector on the back of a yet-to-be-revealed consolidation grand plan. Runner-up: Econet Wireless, the company for which the government tilted the telco playing field two years ago. Still no sign.

The Jonah Lomu Award for a Nice Try goes to the New Zealand Exchange, which tried to get its own back on wholesale electricity market operator M-Co for setting up a rival share trading exchange. NZX's protestations that it is uniquely qualified to run a power market fell on deaf ears, possibly because it can't even manage to post company announcements under the correct ticker most of the time.

For the Annus Horribilis Pewter Mug judges considered The Warehouse, Restaurant Brands and, again, Tower. But this year, for superb individual effort, the honour goes to Craig Norgate, who lost his job as boss of Fonterra, the country's largest company. Norgate's run continued as he launched a stand in the market for 20% of Wrightson shares just as the NZX's computers crashed, leaving him with just 5%. To cap off a bad year, the buyers of his Waiheke Island property are suing him for allegedly failing to mention a small problem with leaks.

Fishing company Sanford, long noted for its extraordinary aversion to publicity, scoops the Saddam Hussein Sash for Lying Low. Sanford hasn't emerged from its spider hole to brief the media in years so it's no surprise hacks have scarcely mentioned the 233% share price rise over the last four years. A 28% 2003 profit rise also went unacclaimed.

Dear departed: Cedenco, taken over by majority shareholder SK Foods; Goodman Fielder, acquired by Graeme Hart's Burns Philp. Welcome: Freightways, Promina, Repco, 42 Below, NZX, Postie Plus, Urbus Properties. Some good, some bad, some ugly.

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