This story from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could almost serve as a postscript to what I had to say yesterday about shareholder engagement and the value of face-to-face dialogue.
On Tuesday, PNC Bank Chairman and CEO James Rohr abruptly shut down the annual shareholders meeting at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. He was still delivering his opening remarks when protesters from the Earth Quaker Action Team started calling out the names of individual board members and “asking them to state their position on mountaintop mining.” Rohr’s response? He called the protesters (who are, let’s not forget, PNC shareholders) “out of order, cut short his prepared remarks, played a brief video and adjourned the proceeding roughly 15 minutes after it began.”
According to Earth Quaker, PNC is “one of the nation’s two largest financiers of mountaintop coal mining,” and the Bank had met earlier demands to divest from companies doing mountaintop removal with equivocation, saying it “no longer financed companies with a majority of their business tied to the practice.” The bank failed to add — in a curious omission — that there are no companies with a majority of the business tied to the destructive practice.
George Lakey, one of the Earth Quaker Action members present at the meeting, describes on the Earth Quake Action blog why he and his fellow share-owning Quakers had “decided to break the rules”:
Twice before Earth Quaker Action Team members had gone to the annual shareholders meeting of PNC Bank and obeyed their rules, spoken out during the allotted time in the meeting, expressed our concern about PNC’s large role in mountaintop removal coal mining and the climate crisis. We’d supported people from Appalachia to be there, speaking to PNC’s board about the injury and death that stems from PNC’s choice to put profits first. We’d brought the eighty-year-old grandson of one of PNC’s founders to tell them an evil banking practice was not what his grandpa had in mind.
We even walked 200 miles across Pennsylvania, witnessing in PNC bank branches along the way, to lift up to Pennsylvanians the full reality of the “green bank” that “helps children grow up great.”
But to no avail. In fact, explained Amy Brimmer, director of Earth Quaker Action to the Gazette reporter, “executives have refused to meet with them.” Why the refusal? Instead of a quiet conversation with a group of Quakers (who are very good at quiet conversation!), Rohr had to contend with shouting and singing and (I would add) an ignominious end to his term as CEO. Lakey continues:
After each board member was addressed by name, we again sang from many parts of the room, “Which side are you on?”
James Rohr threw up his hands and declared the meeting adjourned. Ingrid Lakey began to sing “This little light of mine,” we joined in, and sang joyfully as we slowly left the room along with the other shareholders.
I’m not so sure everybody was singing along. A proposal by Boston Common Asset Management calling on the bank to recognize and report on its response to climate change went down in defeat at the meeting. It’s not as if the hippies were about to take over. The bank’s investments were not at risk. Rohr had nothing to fear, except, perhaps, the truth about PNC’s investments in Appalachian mining.
By Tuesday, it was already too late to remedy the situation. Let’s hope incoming CEO Bill Demchak and the PNC board take the opportunity to set this right.