Bell shareholders urge more board room diversity at company's annual meeting

TORONTO – Shareholders raised concerns about the persistent lack of diversity within the top ranks of BCE Inc. on Thursday, pressuring executives at the telecommunications company to start making changes.

“Clearly (the board is) incredibly qualified, however I was wondering why doesn’t it reflect your customer base and the population?” said one shareholder at the company’s annual meeting in Toronto.

A smattering of applause followed from other investors in the audience.

The shareholder pointed out that only two women sit on the 13-member board, while there are no visible minorities.

Another shareholder chimed in on the board’s composition: “I couldn’t tell them apart in a police lineup.”

Chairman Thomas O’Neill acknowledged that diversity has been discussed by the board, but he added it’s been difficult to find leaders with a comparable breadth of experience.

“Diversity of thought is important, but we do accept your thoughts on diversity of gender and ethnicity,” O’Neill said. “I can tell you that the chairman of the governance committee and I had it as a top priority last year, but I’d like to guarantee that you’ll see that this time next year.”

Gender and ethnic diversity in Canadian board rooms has become a hot topic in recent years.

A study released last November by the Canadian Board Diversity Council found that women held 17.1 per cent of the board positions on the Financial Post 500 list, a ranking of Canada’s largest companies. However, the council said visible minorities and aboriginals on boards are at their lowest level since the survey began in 2010.

Rarely does the composition of a board room become a topic at annual meetings, but it stood out as a timely subject in the unusually long shareholder question period that stretched for more than an hour.

More than 10 shareholders lined up at the microphone to raise issues about various concerns, including confusion about how Bell calculates its monthly bills and a 20-year dispute over long-distance calls made to Europe.

Chief executive George Cope asked shareholders to direct their personal account concerns to a customer service centre at the back of the auditorium even before the barrage of questions began.

Earlier Thursday, BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE) reported a drop in first-quarter profits as it suffered a $137-million expense related to a long-running court battle with rival Quebecor.

Profits dropped 13.5 per cent to $532 million or 63 cents per share, from $615 million or 79 cents per share a year ago.

The decline was mainly caused by a penalty that BCE’s satellite TV service was ordered to pay in March to compensate Quebecor’s Videotron and TVA subsidiaries. The Quebec-based cable and TV broadcasting companies claimed they lost revenue when consumers stole Bell ExpressVu satellite signals for several years ending in 2005.

BCE is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada and executives said they expect to find out within the next quarter whether the case will be heard.

With adjustments to filter out the legal expenses, the Montreal-based company said net income grew to $705 million, or 84 cents a share, compared to $626 million, or 81 cents a share.

Cope told analysts on a conference call that customer service calls dropped by 1.7 million compared to a year earlier, which has also meant that fewer customers are cancelling their services and overall costs are being lowered.

However, the company highlighted a CRTC rule change that’s shortened the span of wireless contracts. The new rules has contributed to BCE’s wireless customer retention costs jumping 10.2 per cent from a year ago to $173 million in the first quarter.

Operating revenue from BCE’s extensive telecommunications and media business was up 2.8 per cent from a year ago, rising to $5.24 billion from just under $5.10 billion.

Most of the revenue growth came from its wireless services — up 9.7 per cent from last year to $1.64 billion, with average monthly revenue per customer at $60.83.

BCE said it added 35,373 wireless customers during the quarter. It also added 60,863 customers to its IPTV (Bell Fibe) television service, partially offset by a loss of 33,873 subscribers to its satellite TV service. Its Internet services added 39,650 subscribers, while its wireline services lost 109,939 lines to residential and business customers.

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