Fletcher Building has finally addressed the elephant in the room and it has caused no more than a ripple among its conservative shareholder base, writes business editor Maria Slade.
Pania Newton, shareholder, and protector at Ihumātao, is now close to an old hand at Fletcher Building annual meetings. When she rose to ask a question of the company’s board today it was the fifth time she has attended the AGM.
Companies are required to hold annual general meetings but they tend usually to be mostly ceremonial affairs, more about PR than genuine company operations. It is a truth universally acknowledged that elderly shareholders attend for the outing and the light refreshments. But there was more than the usual amount of interest in the turnout of Fletchers’ leadership at Eden Park this morning, because the company has had something of an annus memorabilis. There was the matter of the devastating fire at its half-built International Convention Centre project which burned for days and shut down a section of Auckland’s CBD last month. And there is the ongoing Ihumātao dispute, the protracted dispute over confiscated, currently occupied, Māori land to one side of the city’s airport.
Not missing an opportunity to make their point, a good-natured group of Ihumātao protesters serenaded shareholders as they arrived for the event. Fletcher bought the land in 2014 with the intention of developing it for housing, and must have known that ownership of the site on the historic Ōtuataua Stonefields has been a bone of contention for years. Matters came to a crescendo in July when the prime minister stepped in and asked the construction company to down tools while a settlement is negotiated.
Our largest building company has steadfastly refused to comment on the land occupation, so it was consequential that chairman Bruce Hassall chose today to address the elephant in the room. He said a resolution to the dispute is due by the end of this calendar year, a mere 33 days away.
It was important to clarify a few matters, Hassall told the assembled shareholders. Fletchers has acted “ethically, legally and sensitively” throughout and honoured the PM’s request. “Our development has now been paused for almost four months because we want to support a mutually satisfactory outcome,” the chairman said.
Newton is a co-founder of Save our Unique Landscape (SOUL), the group formed in 2015 to protest the development at Ihumātao. She has also been a Fletcher Building shareholder for all of that period. She may not have always had much attention to her at previous annual meetings, but the antennae were twitching when she got to her feet at Eden Park today.
Her question: Given Heritage New Zealand is now considering whether Ōtuataua Stonefields’ should be a category 1, the highest protection afforded to New Zealand heritage sites, what is the board’s commitment to protecting and preserving this land block?
In the manner of the usual AGM choreography, Hassall’s answer was hardly insightful. “We’re considering our position. Heritage New Zealand previously had signed it all off so we’ll wait and see what happens in relation to that.”
That the land dispute was addressed at all and it didn’t result in a ruckus among the mostly white-haired investors is a sign of hope. The only hint of dissent came from shareholder and blogger Chuck Bird, who has apparently heard on talkback that Fletcher might get double what it paid for the land at “Manakow” and that some people think this would be unfair. He put it to the top table: “I just hope you could assure all the shareholders that Fletchers will get an absolutely fair price that compensates for all the inconvenience, money tied up, etcetera.”
Hassall batted this one away with equal proficiency. “The ball is currently in the hands of the prime minister. We’re waiting for a resolution soon. We would expect Fletcher Building, and you the broader shareholders, to be fairly reflected on an equitable basis under any arrangement.”
Pania Newton is a hopeful person. She is pleased to hear a deal is supposedly imminent, although time is marching on. “I will stay patient until the end of the year, but if I have to wait until next year I don’t know how patient I will be by then.
“I just hope Fletcher can show some goodwill. While I agree that they should be compensated for the inconvenience and the costs they have paid, I don’t think they should get anything over and above that.”