COLUMBIA — The result was settled by the time hundreds of shareholders arrived for SCANA Corp.'s meeting Tuesday: Millions of votes had been cast and the sale of South Carolina's largest publicly traded company would be done.
But the shareholders' meeting wasn’t for those millions of votes cast by bankers and Wall Street fund managers, who saw a tidy solution to a costly and contentious problem.
The big institutional investors surely cast the decisive votes when 72 percent of SCANA’s shares backed the sale of the Cayce company to Virginia power giant Dominion Energy.
This meeting was for retirees and ratepayers of SCANA’s crown jewel, South Carolina Electric & Gas, who drove to a drab office park in suburban Columbia to finalize the biggest business decision in state history. They came from Raleigh, Charleston and Columbia and passed through a metal detector to be there.
And in a way, it was for catharsis: It had been exactly one year since SCE&G’s fortunes turned with the demise of its nuclear ambitions, and for the first time — maybe the last time — shareholders had an open microphone in front of the company’s leaders.
Their complaints were as specific as the size of executive payouts and as broad as what’s right and what’s wrong.
“Justice has to prevail,” one woman said.
“There were many things below the surface,” said another, who worried the company had been “putting good money after bad.”
“I am ashamed for the company because I love the company. And I am ashamed for the state,” said yet another, trying to put words to her dilemma. “This makes me feel that you are morally bankrupt.”
A few hundred people in the small convention hall began clapping.
The conflict was clear: Shareholders were torn between what was best for their investment versus what was best for their power bills.
When the company abandoned its plans to expand the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant in Fairfield County, it was worth billions of dollars more. Its shares have sunk more than a third since, as lawmakers have ordered a temporary rate cut and regulators navigate a contentious environment.
It also faces a raft of lawsuits from angry ratepayers and shareholders, and investigations by federal securities regulators, state law enforcement and the FBI, which has a field office next door to the office building where SCANA held its meeting.
But they also understood the roots of backlash.
The meeting was dominated by former workers, who were proud of a company that traced its lineage to the first gaslights in Charleston and Columbia and now saw it met with scorn. And they were electricity users, who paid almost a fifth of their monthly bills to a power plant that had no chance of generating power.
They had memories of buying their first shares of SCANA stock as children, a safe way to learn about the stock market. They remembered hearing about the formation of Lake Murray and what was once the world’s largest earthen dam, and how it helped electrify this state.
“I’ve been very happy with SCANA 90 percent of the time I’ve been involved,” one man said. “It’s been a very well-run company — until recently.”
An hour of airing grievances didn’t change the result. SCANA’s shareholders had formally approved the sale of their company to Dominion, which offered them billions of dollars’ worth of stock, and a fix to the V.C. Summer mess. The deal was initially $14.6 billion, an offer unmatched in the state’s history.
But they did snub the company’s leaders, who will win millions in golden parachutes if SCANA is sold and Dominion fires its executives. The company set aside a $111 million trust fund in case that happens, lawyers said in court Monday.
While shareholders rejected a resolution on post-sale executive compensation on Tuesday, Maybank Hagood, SCANA's board chair, said the vote wouldn’t change the outcome. The vote, required by federal law, was symbolic.
“This is contractual,” Hagood said.