By Ross Kerber
BOSTON (Reuters) - Hewlett-Packard Co will become the largest company to hold an online-only annual shareholder meeting this March, joining a trend toward virtual conferences that some activists worry keeps CEOs off the hotseat.
The Silicon Valley technology giant announced in a Feb. 2 securities filing that its March 18 shareholder meeting will be online only, a move that follows in the footsteps of dozens of other companies including Sprint Corp and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.
HP spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said the new format is cheaper, and will allow for "increased stockholder attendance and participation." She added that shareholders would be able to send in questions ahead of time via the web.
But the move also means that HP's CEO Meg Whitman - the Republican nominee to be California’s governor in 2010 - will not have to appear in person when shareholders likely ask her about the company's planned split later this year, or grill her for details of the company's blueprint for growth.
John Chevedden, a private shareholder activist who has a proposal scheduled to be voted on at the HP meeting, said an in-person event would help shareholders judge Whitman and other executives.
"It's that live interaction you need to see how can she think on her feet, and does her plan stand up?" Chevedden said.
Virtual shareholder meetings have been gaining traction in recent years, but still represent just a tiny fraction of the corporate universe. Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc, the main provider of systems for the online webcasts, said it had helped stage 53 online-only meetings last year, up from 35 in 2013 and 27 in 2012.
Broadridge also hosts "hybrid" annual meetings that combine the webcasts with traditional gatherings. The hybrid format is preferred by many activists, large pension funds and asset managers, because they feature CEOs facing shareholders in person, while also expanding to the virtual audience.
"Our preference is for a hybrid meeting. But the technology is moving, so it's something we're watching," Philip Larrieu, an investment officer at the California State Teachers' Retirement System, or CalSTRS, said. He said the pension system will closely watch HP's online-only meeting.
Online-only meetings have drawn heavy criticism from shareholder activists since a glitch-filled event staged by Broadridge for security firm Symantec Corp in 2010. Broadridge says it has since worked with CalSTRS and others to improve the webcasts.
(Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Andrew Hay)