As Barry Critchley bids farewell, a humble request: Remember the shareholder
The beginning was more than three decades back; the end is Thursday, when my final column will appear and I will then be able to enjoy the benefits of a voluntary employee buy-out.
Between those book ends is my time as a journalist for this newspaper, in all of its manifestations: originally a weekly that reached a national audience, then a standalone daily financial newspaper and for the past 20 years as the business section of the National Post. And over those 35 years I have had the same job, which I hope is not a statement about inertia but rather an affirmation that the constant updating of knowledge in an area of great interest is a good thing.
It has been a wonderful time and I have been blessed, even if the media industryвЂ™s financial struggles continue to make the business more and more difficult. I am not sure how many of my junior colleagues will spend 35 years in their chosen field. Indeed there will be a special reward for a person who can develop the new model where readers will pay for content, where advertisers will pay to reach such an audience and where quality journalism is the norm.
A special thanks is owed to the many people who have helped me over the years. There have been thousands, particularly the market players who assisted with understanding, but especially the readers who are investors and who wanted attention to be focused on issues that matter. We didnвЂ™t always win but it was important to take up the fight.
When I started вЂ” and back then a new reporter was handed a manual typewriter, sheets of paper and a considerable supply of white-out вЂ” the person whose job I took offered one piece of advice: This job is вЂњgreat if you like to go out to lunch 2-3 times a week.вЂќ
I took that advice literally and started a regular habit of meeting people in the financial business over a healthy lunch. In the early days, those meals came with considerable lubrication; now it is a more restrained affair, meaning the information doesnвЂ™t flow as freely as it once did.
It didnвЂ™t take long to work out which side of the investment equation, the issuer or the investor, was the good guy, even if most of the odds are stacked against them. There are no markets without investors and it is amazing the abuse this group takes.
That abuse comes from boards that donвЂ™t think it is their responsibility to make the chief executive accountable to the owners; from special committees of the board formed to consider a transaction that seem to get it wrong by either not considering enough options or by downplaying the conflicts of interest.
ItвЂ™s little wonder one often hears about-to-retire executives, when asked about their future plans,В say вЂњI hope to join a few boards.вЂќ No wonder, comes the silent reply: The cheque goes in the bank and you get a good lunch on a regular basis.
The abuse, at the retail level, comes from financial product manufacturers who continue to bring offerings that seem to suit nobody, except that they generate a revenue flow to the manager. A few years back, one such manufacturer said the products keep emerging, the need to fill up the shelf, because вЂњI work on the assumption the adviser needs to feed the kids every month.вЂќ The chances are Warren Buffet is not buying such products.
Accordingly, advisers have a special role to play, even if the ultimate responsibility falls to the investors themselves. One solution would be retain a portfolio manager, who operates with a fiduciary duty to act with care, honesty and good faith, and always put their clientsвЂ™ interests first. ThatвЂ™s why the recent decisions taken by the Canadian Securities Administrators вЂ” where fiduciary duty was not mandated вЂ” were so disappointing. It was nothing other than a victory for the industry, and not the clients.
ThatвЂ™s why this column took a special interest in shareholder activists: They do the required analysis, they buy stock, they make their position known and then defend themselves with their own money. When they win, it shows that complacency wonвЂ™t be accepted.
Finally, another big thanks to those who made this space, both in the paper and online, part of their daily routine. Chances are that I will miss the work, so the hunt is on to find a suitable replacement. As a friend recently said: Work is good but life is great.