Billionaire climate activist wins board fight at Australia’s AGL Energy

By Sonali Paul

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Shareholders in AGL Energy, Australia’s largest power producer, on Tuesday defied their board and approved all four directors proposed by the company’s top shareholder, tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, proxy votes showed.

At the same time, in a surprise outcome, Chair Patricia McKenzie said shareholders likely rejected the company’s executive pay plan, based on proxy votes, led by opposition from two major shareholders, whom she did not name.

Climate activist Cannon-Brookes, with an 11% stake in AGL, succeeded earlier this year in forcing the company to scrap a demerger and instead announce plans to speed up the closing of its coal-fired power plants by a decade and spend up to A$20 billion on renewable energy by 2036.

Looking to boost his influence, Cannon-Brookes’ investment vehicle, Grok Ventures, proposed four candidates for AGL’s board: ex-Tesla executive Mark Twidell, former Energy Security Board chair Kerry Schott, John Pollaers and Christine Holman.

All four were approved by AGL’s shareholders, Chair Patricia McKenzie told shareholders at the group’s annual meeting, citing proxy votes, although the board had only endorsed Twidell.

“The Board welcomes these new Directors to the Board and will work constructively with them in the best of interests of shareholders,” McKenzie said.

The expanded board’s first job will be to find a new chief executive to lead the company’s transition to green energy, after Cannon-Brookes’ battle to overhaul the company led former CEO Graeme Hunt to quit.

“This represents another majority vote by AGL shareholders pointing to their desire for change, fresh thinking and more execution capacity to realise the potential of this great company,” a Grok spokesperson said in an emailed statement after the annual meeting.

Grok said AGL’s board had its full support to “deliver on the monumental task ahead of rebuilding the company to lead Australia’s green energy transition, for the benefit of all stakeholders”.

All four of Grok’s picks said in recorded comments at the annual meeting they were independent of the tech billionaire and would work in all shareholders’ interests.

While McKenzie won overwhelming support for her re-election to the board, she said based on proxies it was likely that the company’s executive pay plan was rejected by shareholders.

“This is a disappointing result given that all major proxy advisors recommended that shareholders vote in favour of the report and no material concerns were identified,” she said.

Under Australian corporate rules, shareholders may vote to remove a company’s board if at least 25% of voting shareholders object to the pay plan in two consecutive years.

Adding to its challenges, AGL now faces a potentially beefed-up archrival after last week’s surprise announcement that its spurned suitor, Canada’s Brookfield, has led an A$18 billion bid for Origin Energy, Australia’s No. 2 power producer.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Sam Holmes, Gerry Doyle and Simon Cameron-Moore)