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Public barred from Abitibi meeting

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MONTREAL—AbitibiBowater discussed its future direction behind closed doors today—less than a day after Quebec politicians granted pension changes required for its restructuring.

The Montreal-based forestry company barred the public and media from its first annual meeting in three years, and the first since it exited 20 months of creditor and bankruptcy protection in Canada and the United States.

Annual meetings routinely are open to observers in Canada. But company spokesman Pierre Choquette said the newsprint giant considered the event a private meeting “from a legal standpoint.”

“It’s a private meeting so I cannot tell you about the content of what’s going on inside,” he said in an interview outside the session.

“But obviously if there’s important decisions, we’ll be able to comment on them as time goes by,” Choquette added.

In addition to meeting behind closed doors, the company also did not provide a copy of newly-installed CEO Richard Garneau’s speech to shareholders.

Choquette said Garneau recently answered media questions after presenting the company’s position at a public hearing on a bill at the Quebec legislature that would allow companies, including AbitibiBowater, to repay the deficit on their pension funds over 15 years rather than five.

Bill 11 was passed into law yesterday.

Also attending the meeting besides shareholders were employees and retirees.

In prior annual meetings, representatives of both groups had asked questions of management and raised concerns.

AbitibiBowater last held an annual meeting in 2008.

Meanwhile, Choquette noted Garneau also discussed the company’s performance and direction with analysts and the media during a conference call a few weeks ago.

In that call, Garneau said the company was looking at workforce reductions at some Canadian mills as the forest products producer seeks to further squeeze costs to improve profitability.

As well, AbitibiBowater is looking to change its name and move its corporate headquarters to another location in Montreal.

The company has cut more than 6,000 jobs and dramatically reduced its paper and wood capacity by shutting down mills as it prepared to exit creditor protection.

AbitibiBowater employs 11,000 workers, including 7,200 in Canada.

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