Bayer was the first DAX company to organize a virtual AGM. About 5,000 stockholders tuned in. For everyone involved, the preparation time could not have been shorter. Working in new teams and from home, they did their utmost to ensure that the premiere on April 28 was a success. Let’s take a look behind the scenes.
Usually, thousands of stockholders, service providers, journalists and Bayer colleagues would gather on a day like this, but today there are only a few people. The corona pandemic has changed everything: “After the law was amended on March 27, we only had about four weeks to set up the new format with our tried and tested stockholders’ meeting team,” recalls Oliver Maier, Head of Investor Relations. Usually, such projects are planned six to nine months in advance. A huge effort on the part of many employees and service providers from different areas eventually saw to it that the premiere could run smoothly. “We at Bayer like challenges of any kind. How we mastered them underlines the professionalism and quality of our team,” concludes Head of Global Communications Michael Preuss.
Less People but no Less Effort
It can’t be automatically assumed that organizing such a meeting would be less effort simply because the stockholders aren’t physically present. On the contrary: “We basically had to start from scratch, asking questions such as: Who needs to be involved? How can we implement the necessary health protection measures? How can we make sure that the event can be professionally transmitted to several thousand viewers?” says Ulrike Tondorf, Head of Live & Experience Branding at Bayer.
In holding a virtual stockholders’ meeting, Bayer has had to rely much more on IT technology, with a special task force making sure that everything works out. 50 IT experts alone have been involved. Manuela Schwenninger is coordinating the IT teams, including Bayer experts on data security, cyber security and external service providers. “Of course, there are already digital solutions for many issues, but in the end you have to find solutions to the challenges that interact with each other well and run smoothly – in a relatively short amount of time,” she says.
Soon the countdown for the day of the Annual Stockholders’ Meeting was running, with the IT logistics being enormous. The IT colleagues have ensured that the meeting can be transmitted by multiple means, just in case a certain technology fails to perform. During the event, all team members involved are constantly in touch via chat.
Experts are in charge of safeguarding the infrastructure as well as communication and the voting process for registered stockholders. In the invitation they received to the Annual Stockholders’ Meeting, stockholders had been given the chance to submit their questions in writing in advance. This was organized via a stockholders’ portal on Bayer’s internet site. In addition, a postal vote was also offered as an option – a common procedure for several years now.
Most of the questions didn’t arrive until Saturday, some of them just before the deadline at midnight. The answers were prepared by the respective specialists way into the night on Sunday – in response to 245 questions in total. “It certainly was a major effort, just like for a regular Annual Stockholders’ Meeting, only that the colleagues had to work together virtually,” explains Michael Preuss.
Distance and Disinfection to Protect against Corona
The outgoing Supervisory Board Chairman Werner Wenning starts the Annual Stockholders’ Meeting right on time at 10 a.m. “Of course I didn’t imagine that my last stockholders’ meeting would be like this and I would certainly have preferred to talk to you in person,” he says. He says goodbye after five decades. Unfortunately, he has to do without the applause he would have deserved and received under normal circumstances. A total of five Board of Management and Supervisory Board representatives and the notary are in front of the camera. They are sitting behind their desks at an appropriate distance from one another. Other Board of Management and Supervisory Board members are connected up digitally.
“We tried out the routes all speakers were to take beforehand to make sure that they wouldn’t come too close to each other,” says Tondorf. There’s always a break before the next speaker takes the floor. The desk is disinfected and the microphones protection cap is changed.
“We stretched the set-up over several days to make sure that not too many people came in here at the same time. You certainly need time – and space,” Tondorf points out. Only a few technicians and experts as well as two camera operators are in the room. A few more technicians are in the foyer. They have to eat something during the day, so Bayer’s catering service has given them packed lunches. Masks and disinfectants have also been provided. A “rapid response team” and interpreters are on duty next door at headquarters. “You need decent connections, the distances shouldn’t be too long,” says Tondorf.
As every year, the Bayer Board of Management and Supervisory Board answer all the questions on the day. Exchanging with interest groups, Corporate Communications is also trying to stick to the usual routine.
“It’s a common procedure that different interest groups use Bayer’s Annual Stockholders’ Meeting to raise awareness of topics such as environmental protection and climate change,” says Christian Maertin, Head of Corporate Communications. To make sure that these legitimate protests don’t get lost completely within the digital format, the social media team has organized an online demonstration on Twitter from 8 to 10 a.m. where only posts of critics are retweeted. “Such an activity can of course not replace a real demonstration, but showing that we consider diversity of opinion a valuable asset was still very important to us.”
There’s a sense of relief when the event is over. “Everybody approached this mammoth task with the respect it was due,” says Tondorf. “It was extraordinary teamwork.” Oliver Maier, Head of Investor Relations, adds: “What counts in the end is that we met the high expectations that everyone had of the first ever virtual AGM of a DAX company. We were able to achieve this even under these unusual circumstances and despite all the uncertainties.”
The Event in Figures
- Up to 5,000 viewers followed the new format.
- The German government’s corona emergency legislation of March 27 had paved the way for the unusual format.
- This time, Bayer received 245 questions from 40 stockholders. In 2019, there had been 279 questions. During the past three years, an average of 239 questions from 51 stockholders had been submitted.
- Kickoff on April 3 – 15 days to prepare
- 10 service providers and 50 task force members
- Around 30 virtual ad-hoc meetings
- The costs for the virtual Annual Stockholders’ Meeting amounted to between one third and one fourth of the usual costs.