IT'S TIME to do away with the almost-obligatory buffet spread provided by many listed companies to the shareholders attending their annual general meetings (AGMs).
Now, I know that getting between hungry shareholders and their expected repast is going to make me as popular as another S-Chip accounting scandal.
But having covered my share of such events, which public companies are required to hold annually, I've come to believe that the post-AGM buffet is a bad idea.
This is because the free food has the unfortunate effect of abetting some rancid behaviour on the part of some shareholders.
What sort of behaviour?
Well, for starters, the exodus of shareholders for the exit door of a room before the meeting has ended, all making a beeline for the buffet room to secure a place at the head of the buffet queue.
Some shareholders carry containers to take away the food, never mind that it is meant for the consumption of shareholders attending the event.
The choicest items - such as chicken wings, prawn fritters and fish fillet - often run out first, although I have it on good authority from a straw poll of a dozen companies in industries ranging from utilities to finance to services, that they all cater for more food than the numbers attending.
Company spokesmen and retail shareholders shared other horror stories with me. One shareholder would routinely turn up at a company AGM with a grocery cart-load of empty containers she would then fill with food.
Another person recounted how some shareholders show up with their extended family - including toddlers - along as 'observers' so they too can enjoy the buffet.
In a letter to The Straits Times Forum page last month, SMRT shareholder Leong Hoe Cheong shared how some shareholders would go around collecting uneaten food off others' plates to pack home.
And then there's the shareholder who, halfway through the AGM meeting, left the room hurriedly and went straight to the buffet area, where he proceeded to open the lids of all the buffet trays over the protests of the serving staff. He then carted off an entire tray of satay (spiced grilled meats). Yes, he took even the steel warming tray.
I've seen with my own eyes how a swarm - there really is no other word to describe them - of shareholders cleaned out the buffet spread. And then, fortified by the feast, they made their way into the company's meeting rooms. There, they headed straight for the cafe bar and wiped out the coffee packs, tea bags, sachets of sugar and non-dairy creamer. They even took away the plastic stirrers and styrofoam cups.
To be fair, most retail shareholders do not behave so badly. Many of those I've had the pleasure to speak to are courteous, queue up in orderly fashion, don't pile their plates without regard for others behind them, or take along containers to da bao (pack) the food.
But the behaviour of a minority is downright offensive. In fact, one of my greatest fears is that a bad accident will happen one day.
I once witnessed an argument between two middle-aged men after one scooped up a mound of all the remaining cuttlefish balls from the buffet tray - depriving the other of the delectable morsels.
I was one of the aggrieved ones in the queue behind with no sotong ball to savour. And while I had fun imagining two angry, hungry grown men in a full-on food fight, I also felt troubled.
That heated argument was one shove away from serious trouble, as we were surrounded by hot food in containers heated by flaming tea lights.
It's time to do away with those free-for-all buffet fests after an AGM, before a major incident erupts.
After all, AGMs are for shareholders of a company to meet with its management and board of directors to discuss serious matters, elect new office-holders, and obtain shareholder approval for major business decisions.
It is not an annual general makan, even if some treat it as such.
Some companies have in fact got rid of the buffet. A few replace buffets - which reward the impatient and unruly - with packed meals for all. Some give out food vouchers. Even these alternatives attract greedy shareholders - some rejoin the food queue for extra packets of food or extra vouchers.
But at least they are safer options.
For those companies that want to retain the buffet or fear offending shareholders if they do away with it, I suggest that they have serving staff at each food station to control portions given out.
I know my suggestion to do away with the free buffet will give shareholders who are regulars at annual general makans, severe indigestion.
If you are offended, let me pose this question.
Why do you buy a company's shares?
Probably because of its growth prospects or generous dividend yield. I doubt the food provided at AGMs, no matter how good it may be, was part of this calculation.
Consider the potential downside that a melee or accident at an AGM can cause to the image or share price of the company whose shares you own.
Now, I warrant that's a prospect most shareholders will agree is even less appetising than missing out on a buffet.
Companies say they offer the buffet as a 'thank you' gesture to shareholders. As a shareholder myself of several companies here, I say a better gesture is to have a smooth, safe AGM with no prospects of a stressful, potentially unrowdy scramble for free food.
Better still, put the resources spent organising a buffet for several hundred people to better use, to grow the business, or even give out higher dividends.
In my books, that's a far better way to make shareholders drool.