At the 2004 AGM Chairman Sir Christopher Bland and his fellow Board members answered questions from shareholders on a wide range of issues, including:
BT overseas call centres
A shareholder pointed out that a rapid transition from traditional services to new wave services would require considerable support and cooperation from BT's workforce. The Chairman was asked to re-assure customers and shareholders that the Company will not meet this challenge by establishing more and more services offshore. Sir Christopher stated that BT remains firmly committed to the UK - its core market. This has been reflected in the investment in 31 call centres in the UK compared with just two in India. In addition the Chairman reminded shareholders that the Company has made it clear that there would be no compulsory redundancies for BT employees and that BT remained committed to consultation with both its people and their trade unions. However Sir Christopher also pointed out that BT is a commercial business and that the Board had a duty to reduce costs wherever possible without impacting on service quality.
The risk involved in the delivery of major contracts
It had been announced that BT had won a major contract with the NHS and a shareholder asked the Chairman to clarify any risks there might be to shareholders in meeting the demands of such a significant contract. In answering the question Sir Christopher made it clear that no business was risk free. However, he pointed out, BT has over 10 years experience of managing risk on large solution type contracts and that there is a very clear process for both judging risk and pricing customer driven changes to contracts.
Share price performance
The Chairman was reminded that the BT share price stood at £14 only four or five years ago and asked if the Board is they expected to see that level achieved again. Sir Christopher reminded shareholders that at the time the BT share price was at such a high level the stock market was at, what is now agreed to have been an unsustainable level - especially in the technology and telecoms sectors. The Chairman pointed out that it was the Board's job to run the business - improving performance and that it was the stock market's job to set the share price. In the past 15 months total shareholder returns had increased by over 30%.
A shareholder raised a question suggesting that the cost of Broadband in the UK was far higher than in other European countries. This was disputed by the Chairman as he pointed out that Ofcom had established that prices in the UK were, in fact, lower than in almost any other European country - he added that a recent OECD report had also arrived at the same conclusion. Sir Christopher pointed out that it was important for consumers to compare like with like in the area of Broadband services.
Regulation and the 21st Century Network
It is clear that BT has committed to a significant investment in the development of the 21st Century Network. A return on this investment will clearly depend significantly on the regulatory environment. In this context a shareholder asked what Ofcom's envisaged position was on this and how that might impact on BT's continued investments. Sir Christopher made it clear that BT is deep in dialogue with Ofcom and that it is arguing very strongly that investment in the telecoms industry must be encouraged by appropriate returns. Thus far there are positive signals from Ofcom but it is still early days. BT is fully committed to building a 21st Century Network however this must be achieved within the right regulatory framework.
Commitment to the Welsh language
With the AGM being held in Cardiff it was entirely appropriate that a shareholder asked the Chairman if BT was committed to its Welsh speaking customers. Sir Christopher made it clear that BT is fully committed to meeting the needs of its Welsh customers and shareholders, and that the venue for this year's AGM was evidence of that. In the past year BT has further strengthened its support for the Welsh language through the introduction of Welsh language directory enquiries and bilingual publications. However services such as 1571 and 1471 cannot be made bilingual at this time as the costs are prohibitive.
A shareholder asked Sir Christopher if BT had reached a decision regarding the maximum age for employees being increased beyond 60 years in light of the Government's announcement to review legislation in this area. The Chairman made it clear that BT welcomes the legislative review and that it was working closely with Government to ensure that the new legislation, when introduced, would be clear and workable.