Ordinarily, the Annual Shareholders’ Meeting is an opportunity to get together.
This year, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to make changes to the format for this event. As a first step,
we had postponed the Meeting, initially scheduled for June 4, to July 2, 2020, in the hope that we could meet shareholders in person. Since then, however, stay-at-home orders have limited gatherings (French government decree no. 2020-548 of May 12, 2020), so our Annual Meeting will in the end take place behind closed doors.
For David Darmon, my colleague on the Executive Board, Nicolas ver Hulst, the Chairman of the Supervisory Board, and myself, it is particularly important in these difficult times to maintain a dialogue with our individual shareholders. Accordingly, until June 26, every shareholder may send questions to Wendel, by addressing them to the General Secretariat. We will answer these questions during our Annual Meeting, which will be streamed on our website. We will also post written answers on our website. Please note that for the first time this year, you may vote electronically via the internet.
This event will be an opportunity to take stock of the past few months. For Wendel, 2019 was once again a year primarily devoted to strengthening our portfolio companies and improving our value creation. Bureau Veritas stepped up its growth and consolidated its financial model. IHS Towers continued on its trajectory. Stahl got off to a renewed start during the last few months of the year. Constantia Flexibles embarked on a vigorous plan to restore its competitiveness. Part of the proceeds from our successful Allied Universal investment were redeployed to Crisis Prevention Institute.
2020 started with a brutal, worldwide economic slowdown. At this juncture, we cannot say what the future consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will be, because certain regions of the world are still severely afflicted and because the major economies are surviving with government assistance. We now know that the intensity of this crisis goes well beyond that of all other economic crises since the beginning of the century.
Over the last few years, we had prepared ourselves for a downturn in the macroeconomic and financial cycle, even though during that time we didn’t know exactly what could spark such a downturn. So we exercised caution by selling half of our investments. We also freed up significant resources by selling Saint-Gobain and Bureau Veritas shares and by continuing to reduce debt at Stahl and Constantia Flexibles. We have helped strengthen Bureau Veritas’s balance sheet by taking our 2018 dividend in shares and by focusing the company on cash generation. Overall, we have sold significantly more than we have acquired. We have consciously decided to go against the grain in an environment tending to favor speculative acquisitions.
On March 18, 2020, after achieving very favorable results and a sound financial condition in 2019, Wendel had initially announced a dividend on 2019 earnings of €2.90 per share, an increase of 3.6%. On April 14, 2020, Wendel indicated that it was waiting for a clearer view of the economic and public health situation
before confirming the amount of its proposed dividend. Since then, Wendel has sold its remaining stake in Allied Universal, raising additional net proceeds of around $196 million. As a result, Wendel’s total liquidity, including this sale on a pro forma basis, was €2.1 billion as of March 31, 2020.
We have decided to propose a reduction in the dividend announced on March 18 to the amount paid in 2019, i.e. €2.80 per share. Wendel made this decision after weighing the current situation against the Group’s 2019 financial performance. 2019 was a good year for Wendel, in particular owing to the sale of Allied Universal at excellent terms. We feel that keeping the dividend at €2.80 per share strikes the right balance between moderating the dividend in the current, unprecedented healthcare crisis and legitimately remunerating our shareholders, a principle that we hold dear.
In the future, we will have to make the right decisions in a disciplined manner while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our stakeholders. When we emerge from this difficult period, Wendel will continue to orient its resources toward growing markets. We will be more vigilant than ever about maintaining a sound balance sheet, and we know now how crucially important that is! We will continue to support talented companies as they grow, and we will deepen our corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments, which current events have made all the more important.
Notwithstanding the remote nature of this year’s Annual Shareholders’ Meeting, I hope as many of you as possible will watch our live stream on July 2.