Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Awwwwwwwwwwww, Facebook

So, yesterday was Karva Chauth. Before any of you unwitting souls think that this is a post exalting the 'made famous by Yash Chopra' fast/ fest, it isn't. So please don't leave thinking this is again something describing the moon and a sieve and a display of ultimate sacrifice yada yada yada. And before all those sieve wielding women come at me with, well you guessed it, sieves, let me please clarify that the region of India and the form of Hinduism I practise, do not mandate me to see moon and man in that order before I eat a morsel of food. The place I come from is harsher. On a similar day of 'pray for spouse', we are mandated to eat a certain object for lunch and dinner with nothing in between; and I call it object, for it is something that never makes an appearance on any of the other 364 (or 365 in case of a leap year, just in case you thought that every fourth year it is eaten and applauded twice) days. Believe me when I say harsher. Just please believe it!

Anyhow, so yesterday was Karva Chauth. I know that despite not living in Delhi (the KC capital of the world, followed only by the Couv), given that through all my time in Mumbai, I was never ever surrounded by KC-observing women. But then again, this post is not about the fast/fest. Where was I again? Oh yes. I know about KC (it is a long word or words to keep typing over and over again). So I know about KC, through..... wait for it..... FACEBOOK. Oh yes, the never-ceases-to-amaze-me Facebook. And not just a post saying.. wait! no post can justify letting the world know you observed a religious tradition that you chose to follow. And absolutely nothing can justify the comments to follow. Note - some statements are exaggerations for dramatic effect. Which ones exactly, are for you to go figure. This disclaimer also serves as my CYA in case I am to find myself surrounded or even plonked on the head by sieves.

So post - 'Mr. Moon, where are you? Don't trouble us any more'. Responses/ follow up comments after a dozen likes, including most definitely a like by the spouse in question -  'awwwwwwwwwwwwwww!! so sweet!!!' and 'well, if it is any relief, the moon has shown his face in YYY country' with the best being a google images pic of a moon cartoon posted by the husband, only to be followed again by a dozen likes and an even longer awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww for the husband. The reply I would have loved to leave if only I didn't fear the sieves, 'Up in the sky, of course. Lunar rotations and cloud positions are completely unrelated to your gastric activities'.

Even better is the post that says 'Successful KC tagging husband', followed by congratulations, and even better still, 'prouda you' comments. The Prouda you comes only from the husband, mind you, obviously eliciting a dozen likes and awwwwws. Especially if it is the first KC. Not surprisingly, subsequent KCs only tag the moon in the posts!! The clincher though is the public declaration by the wife that the husband fasted too, which brings out even bigger awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwws - awwws you wouldn't see even for pictures of a teacup pic or a kitten trying to climb a pillow.

No doubt it is a tough thing to do, and kudos to everyone who managed to resist temptation and did not suffer from acidity subsequently. But isn't this something one chooses to do? Then what exactly the facebook declarations are for, is beyond me.

Yup! I heard it. So, I harbor a tinge of jealousy, since I do not receive any awws. Of course I do. Despite being over 500 miles away from a true Canadian Tim Hortons, I managed to brew what I believe is the perfect Tim brew, that very very closely mirrors my extra small 2 milk order. And I get not even an oh, let alone an awwwww. Huff!!!!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Shareholder is king!

The recent Agrium- Jana spat seems like a story straight out of a Jeffery Archer book. Except that in an Archer book, activist shareholder coups are the result of ulterior motives of business rivals. In case of Jana Partners though, which in the past has managed to ‘de-conglomerate’ (for want of a better word), the likes of McGraw Hill, the motive is to unlock value in Agrium. A value that they believe has been lost in translation.

The case Agrium makes is that their presence across the whole value chain gives them better bargaining power.  They apparently got access to the Viterra acquisition with those terms because they were all across the value chain. Jana on the other hand believes that such omnipresence actually prevents Agrium from generating a value it could potentially have. So they would like to have the retail arm and the potash business hived off. Jana also claims that they would like to see better corporate control and better cost control in the company.

A rather nasty war of words has since ensued. As the largest shareholder of Agrium, with over 7.5%, Jana definitely has a strong say in the company’s decisions. And they are certainly taking the corporate governance duties of a shareholder very seriously, by sinking in a lot of money, time, effort and might into this proxy battle. They have apparently spent over $1 billion towards acquiring the 7.5% stake.

If they do manage to get two of their own people on the Agrium board, the situation could end up like a coalition government, with key, contentious decisions almost never getting through, in an attempt to unlock the proposed value.

The question though is, whether value has indeed been lost. A simple look at Agrium’s share price 10 years ago shows a growth of almost 83% over the past decade, when inflation adjusted S&P 500 total return was around 46%. So what value is Jana looking to create? Is this value really quantifiable? Must one take their past track record with McGraw Hill and others as a benchmark? Is it really worth taking the trial-and-error risk of shuffling the board with one of the world’s largest fertilizer makers? Well, the shareholders’ opinion is all that counts and the end is indeed nigh.

That said though, the activism in shareholding is what is most appealing in these proceedings. Not very long ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the annual shareholder meeting of a certain company, the name of which we will keep anonymous. Before I start off describing the story, I should maybe make it clear that this was a shareholder meet for a small firm, not a Fortune 500 place. Nonetheless, the inevitable comparison with the on-going Jana-Agrium fight did happen, vis-à-vis shareholders’ role in capital markets.

So the first thing I found funny with this firm, was that the average age of the handful of shareholders present in the meeting was over 70, at least. When casually asked why this was so, an officer of the company said that in general it is the retired community that invests in stocks! Secondly, there was a piece of material information – a problem that could potentially hurt future prospects,  that had not been universally and formally disclosed. Inadvertent leaks were all that was out. When quizzed about it, the issue was very cleverly skirted. The shareholders were not very persistent and the fact that the question went unanswered did not raise any red flags, whatsoever. The board has been made up of 4 people, who have been on the board, since the company went public. Maybe a couple of people kept getting added and subtracted, but the same 4 usual suspects remained throughout. Not much is known about them, or what they do in the company. At the meeting, the directors were ‘elected’ and the resolution passed, all within 15 minutes, with the handful of people in the room too busy with their cup of tea, to even raise their hands if they dissented. A couple of harsh questions were asked, which got long-winded non-answers in response. These responses were not counter-questioned.

The stark contrast with Agrium did come to the fore. At the end of the day, benefiting from an equity investment lies in the shareholders’ hands. If I want my money to work for me, I would need to put in the effort that is required. Blaming the management for poor leadership and mismanagement is all well. But it is finally in the shareholder’s best interests to set things right if she wants to and indeed, corporate governance mechanisms do exist that enable her to do so. It’s just that these methods are disregarded. In most cases, shareholders are unaware of their rights. And it is not very often that boardroom battles end up in the living room, as has been the case with Agrium. The hope though, is that this should be an essential lesson to every shareholder. That regardless of whether the firm whose shares you hold is worth 2 million or 200 billion, the power to set things right does exist in your hands if you wish to exercise it.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Unbelievable Arrogance.... A.k.a United Airlines

It's always takes an unusually pleasant or an outrageously awful experience to make the words flow. Unfortunately in my case, it was the latter. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder why I was subjected to such a ridiculous experience, despite having paid upwards of a few hundred dollars for my travel. Why do I quote the number? Well, just to clarify, before one could think that i was complaining about the lack of quality in a free service, given that money alone, could, in some frames of reference, allow hideously arrogant behavior to be condoned, I must make it clear that the basis of exchange had indeed changed hands, but I ended up getting way more than I asked for, and I mean it in a negative sense. Here is why the title is what it is.

My current lifestyle, unfortunately requires me to make the not-so-pleasant frequent hops across the border from Canada to America. So it's Air Canada most of the time, but in some unfortunate moments, I have to travel United, as nothing else would be available at a reasonable price. One might say that since I choose a cheaper option, I shouldn't complain. But I say, pleading the cause of economics, that there is always a given price and a fair price, and it isn't that United offers me a bargain deal. It is just standard fair price. Besides, even the vendors at a flea market, who offer you bargain deals, do not yell at you or insult you, even if you don't buy anything from them! Although, if United chose to brand themselves as a 'cheap' airline, I would at least know what to expect!

Anyway, I was on a flight that was to depart at 6.48 PM from Pearson, Toronto to Newark, New Jersey. It's a cold, windy day and I parked at my lot and waited for the shuttle, which unfortunately was also late. It was as if the universe was conspiring against me. I had anyway shuddered in the morning when my Tripit app told me I was flying United, given the number of painful experiences I have had with them. But nothing prepared me for today. So, the shuttle arrived at 5.20. I requested the driver to get me to my terminal first, as I had to show up at the check-in counter by 5.48. He asked me which airline I was flying, and I said , "United". "Oh! They are quite mean in their requirements", said a fellow passenger. "They demand that you be present exactly an hour before departure, or they won't check you in. They'll delay the flight, but not give a hoot about that fact that your plans are messed up. They lose your luggage, but make sure they collect cancellation and rescheduling charges." I nodded, thinking back about how I have had all that and more happen to me in the past. The shuttle guy was decent enough, as were my co-passengers, to let me get to my terminal soon.

I reached the terminal, and sprinted like there was no tomorrow. I remembered the time, when my ticket said I should check in 45 minutes prior to departure, and I turned up at the counter with 55 minutes to spare. I was talked to sternly by the people at the counter, made to feel shitty about being 5 minutes later than their chosen one hour deadline. Despite the fact that I had checked in at home, I had no luggage, but only because I had a US visa which needed human contact for me to obtain a boarding pass, I had to endure their behavior! When I countered their argument then, that I was within the limit as mentioned on my ticket, I was told that their systems shut off an hour in advance, and so I couldn't be checked in. How, after giving me dirty looks, did the lady manage to check me in after that, I don't know. But remembering the episode, I ran. The time, 5.40. Still 8 minutes to spare, and I reached the counter. Well, the queue.

There were 3 people in line, being serviced by one lady. Anticipating the fact that I would be enacting a replay of the prior United incident, I walked up to an empty counter, where 2 ladies, were standing, not involved in checking people in. I innocuously posed them a simple question. ' I'm on the 6.48 flight,' I said. 'If I'... And I was cut mid- sentence. ' go line up'. I was told tersely. ' I know,' I said, ' but if I go queue up, I might not be at the desk by 5.48 and you will not let me get in the flight'. 'You are late', said lady 1. 'I'm not,' I said. 'I still have 5 minutes to go'. Lady 2, underwent a change of heart and said, 'I will help'. I had almost begun to thank my stars', when lady 1 hollered from behind her,'if you are not late, then go queue up'. I said again,' if I did queue up, would you'... And she cut me mid sentence again and said," Are you threatening me?" I said," no. I'm asking". "No. You're threatening", she yelled back. Lady 2 said," ok. I don't want any more arguments here." Looking at me, she said," God is watching, and judging". Aghast at the lady 1's behavior, I muttered,' man! You guys are so rude!' Lady 2 looked up at me angrily and said,' are you including me?' In a very threatening and menacing manner. Afraid she might stop helping me, I said," no no. I did not." "I'm trying to log in here, because I'm supposedly (sic) done with my shift. I had to take a break. I have been here since 11". (As if she was doing everyone a favor, by working from 11). "But I'm doing this, for God. God is watching," she continued." Thank you," I said, gently, as though I was dealing with someone with a serious anger problem! " I do everything, but I get no appreciation". "You're doing a great job," I said. " really appreciate it", I began." No! Doesn't seem that way. You are still going on, and on", she said presumably about the fact that I was actually speaking! Quite insulted, I asked her whether she wanted me to stop talking and she said "Yes!" I was flabbergasted by such high-handed behavior, and in utter frustration, muttered her lines back to her, saying, "God is watching". At this time, lady 2 just stopped what she was doing, canceled the half-proceeded check-in process, looked up at the ceiling, and said," sorry God. I tried. But I won't." She tossed my passport back to me and I was, by this time utterly disgusted by such behavior.

I walked up to the line, told the passengers there that the counter guys were giving me a tough time and asked them whether they wouldn't mind my going ahead. They were more than gracious. The gentleman at the head of the line said, " go ahead. None of us really cares! I hate United too. I never want to travel with them unless I have no choice". I agreed. "Plus, " he continued, " they are so ridiculously slow! They just take ages for every passenger, and their systems also seem to allow such inefficiency. In fact they promote such inefficiency! Look at others. They just breeze you through! Like say, Delta!" I said, " Yes. Take Air Canada for instance. They have someone scanning the lines for people on flights that are an hour away and try to bring them ahead, so they won't be late for the one hour mark. And they are pleasant about it!" At this time, lady 1, who had made up her own mind that she had a score to settle with me, came out of nowhere, and yelled again," oh! So you're ahead of the queue! Ahead of the other passengers!" And insultingly rolled her eyes at me! The gentleman behind me said," she absolutely Had to point that out! As if anyone here cares!"

What's more, there was another man coming to open an extra counter for passengers. Lady 1 told him that I was late and that he shouldn't help me! He came out of the employee area announcing, " you're the late person, right? I will help the man behind you." I said for for the nth time, "I am not late. I'm on the 6.48 flight, and it is 5.46." He looked at the schedule, realized that the flight was already delayed to 7 PM and that they had no grounds for harassing me any more and said as much to the woman at the only active counter. The woman at the only active counter who had 2 people she was helping, said that she would check me in. By this time, I was annoyed and I didn't care. I asked her bluntly," are you sure? Please do not tell me when I come up that I am late because I waited for you." "Do you have bags?", she asked. " No," I said tersely. "Take our place. You don't even have bags. We are not in a rush", said the people who the woman was checking in. "Why wouldn't the new guy help her?", they asked the woman. " I will check her in," said the woman, who by now perhaps realized that the passengers in the line and around were not buying their ridiculously insulting behavior.

Finally, I got my boarding pass and swore never to travel United again, if I could help it. What was ironic, was inside the flight, the attendant announced," we understand you have several choices for your travels. We appreciate the business and hope to see you in future". In all honesty, you won't see business from me again. And I wish, United, that this sentiment of appreciating business was consistent throughout your organization. For starters, you could stop hiring the rudest human beings in the world and have them work in customer service. The East Asian lady might have had a bad day, but I had nothing to do with it. I had a bad day at work too. She complained about 'working from 11'. Well, my days go on from 9-6. Can I throw a fit too then?

If you expect a cabbie to smile when you pay your fare, or the cashier at the ticket counter of a bus station to be polite, customer reps at airline check-in counters pretty much do not have a different code of ethics. I pay money for my trip which pays their salaries. In true capitalist fashion, I should be treated well. At the least, not be insulted for no goddamned reason. All I wish is, that these people are forced to travel by their own airline and have to deal with customer service professionals just like themselves.