Harvey Norman chairman Gerry Harvey has called his critics “totally friggen mad” at a tense annual meeting during which shareholders handed his board a first strike over executive pay.
The homeware retailer’s remuneration report was rejected by 50.63 per cent of shareholders – well over the 25 per cent required for a first strike – raising the prospect of an automatic spill next year of a board that has been unchanged since 2007.
Mr Harvey lambasted Australian Shareholders’ Association representatives at Tuesday’s meeting as “agitators” after the group had said it would vote against the report.
“There are people sitting in this room who think we are crooks; we are not crooks and we’re very upset that you think we are,” Mr Harvey said in Sydney.
“There are critics among you who are mad – totally friggen mad.”
Mr Harvey said analysts and the media had ignored the company’s successes and instead focused on things such as the failed Coomboona dairy farm acquisition.
Harvey Norman lost $49.5 million on the venture, which was initiated by Mr Harvey.
“(They say) ‘You’ve invested in a dairy, or a mining camp, you shouldn’t have done that, you’re all idiots’,” Mr Harvey said.
“The good things sell far outweigh the bad things, but it doesn’t (seem to) matter… we think we do a wonderful job but then you have people who swipe and say these things about us, to insinuate we’re crooks.”
Sales at Harvey Norman’s Australian franchisee-operated stores are slightly lower so far this financial year, down 0.2 per cent from the prior corresponding period.
Comparable sales from Harvey Norman’s wholly or majority-owned stores – which includes those in New Zealand, Slovenia, Croatia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Singapore and Malaysia – were up 3.0 per cent.
The ASA had already questioned the apparent lack of renewal on Harvey Norman’s board and on Tuesday asked why it contained only one woman when 80 per cent of the company’s customers were female.
Chief executive officer Katie Page, the board’s sole female representative and Mr Harvey’s wife, said it was important to look at the culture of the company as a whole.
“You need to look at the women coming through, how we are training them so that they can be great CEO’s or CFO’s,” Ms Page said.
“If you lose a generation of women (to board positions) who are training to be CEOs or CFOs, then you have a dysfunctional society again… I’d like to see a balance.”
One source of support came from racing identity and entrepreneur John Singleton, a long-time Harvey Norman shareholder, who expressed disbelief at the ASA’s criticism.
“There’s not a bad bone in Gerry Harvey’s body, not a dishonest bone in him or Katie, never has been never will be,” Mr Singleton said.
“I would have thought someone would have the decency to stand up and say this is a fantastic company.”
Shares in Harvey Norman were up 2.49 per cent to $3.085 at 1415 AEDT on Tuesday, still 35 per cent lower than a 20-month high of $4.51 back in March.