Companies Scale Back at Annual Meetings


By Madlen Read -- AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Just a few years ago, companies staging annual meetings brought in acts like Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett. At the very least, they offered snacks as CEOs boasted about big profits.

This year, when stockholder Ram Bijapur decided to show up at the Hilton hotel for the Citigroup meeting because he was angry about the bank's steep losses, what he found was decidedly more sparse.

"They're so broke," he observed, "they can't even give us a bottle of water."

As annual meetings ramp up in earnest for the first time since the economic meltdown, the gatherings are very different affairs. Perks and glitz are out. And, at least in the financial sector, shareholder anger is in.

At the Citigroup meeting, which this year was without the usual coffee and cookies, one shareholder sent off departing board members with a cry of "Thank God you've gone!"

Citigroup investors have been a notoriously noisy bunch for years, but this year took it to the extreme. The meeting went on for about six hours, two hours longer than in recent years.

It's not just the banks. At the annual meeting of The New York Times Co., which is in such bad shape it has threatened to close The Boston Globe if it can't cut costs, stockholder Leotchmen Maharaj told the board it should can the CEO.

"Every year I come to the meeting, and they say the same thing," Maharaj said. "The stock price keeps going down."

It's a far cry from the placid and sometimes festive meetings of years past. Starbucks brought in Tony Bennett and piped in McCartney via video link to impress shareholders in 2006 and 2007. At last month's meeting, there were no stars. It did not even unveil a new product.

This year, CarMax Inc. is scaling back the number of glossy pages in its annual report. Kraft Foods Inc. is forgoing annual report printouts altogether and e-mailing the documents to shareholders instead — a move Kraft says is greener and will save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Coca-Cola Co. and General Motors Corp. both usually meet in Wilmington, Del., but this year they're staying close to home and meeting in Atlanta and Detroit, respectively.

To some shareholders, though, the cost savings are peanuts compared with executive pay: The head of Citigroup took home a $38 million pay package last year. Coke's got $20 million, Kraft's $16 million and GM's almost $15 million.

"They should start with themselves," said Evelyn Y. Davis, a corporate gadfly who has been pushing for compensation reform at annual meetings for years. "If they try to say they're saving money by telling shareholders to go to the Internet to get their proxy statement ... what is that compared to the millions in bonuses?"

Still to come in the next few weeks are the annual meetings of some of the most troubled, even infamous, corporate names in America, including bailed-out Bank of America Corp. and American International Group Inc., where big bonuses stirred outrage among the public and lawmakers.

Bank of America faces heavy shareholder scrutiny on Wednesday after its shotgun buy of the troubled investment bank Merrill Lynch last September, and hefty bonuses doled out to Merrill employees right before the deal closed.

The board "transformed a company that was in good condition into one of the most costly casualties of the crisis," said Michael Garland of CtW Investment Group. CtW is trying to get shareholders to vote CEO Ken Lewis off the board.

The chance that Lewis will get the boot is still slim. All of Citigroup's nominated directors, old and new, were elected at its meeting last week. A big obstacle for small shareholders is that brokerages, who typically side with management, make up a large percentage of the voting pool at most banks.

Still, the effort to oust Lewis is getting more support than most shareholder proposals do: RiskMetrics, a research and advisory firm, last week recommended that investors vote for CtW's measure.

Bank of America disagrees. "We believe we have acted legally and appropriately in our disclosures surrounding the Merrill Lynch acquisition, and that the acquisition will ultimately create value for Bank of America shareholders," the bank said in a statement.

As the economy shrinks, not all companies are slashing their annual meeting budgets or curbing the entertainment factor. CBS Corp., for example, is renting out its usual hall in midtown Manhattan and still plans to show its "sizzle reel" of TV clips.

Officials at Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway are saying this year's meeting will be bigger than ever. In 2007, Jimmy Buffett turned up at the annual meeting with a spoof rendition of "Margaritaville," and in 2008, actress Susan Lucci pretended to take over the conglomerate.

And investors in Coke, whose stock price has fallen from above $60 to below $40 at times in the past year, were at least able to drown their sorrows in a freebie. At the annual meeting last week, the company gave out small gift bags and offered shareholders their choice of a Coca-Cola product.

-- AP Business Writers Randall Chase in Dover, Del., Harry R. Weber in Atlanta, Lauren Shepherd in New York, Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Va., Emily Fredrix in Milwaukee, Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., and Andrew Vanacore in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.  All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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