When someone doesn't want to face his or her boss, employees, or the public, do you take that as a bad sign? I do. And sometimes that problem shows up through the annual shareholders' meeting.
That's why it's shameful that Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , and American Airlines' parent AMR (NYSE: AMR ) moved their shareholder meetings away from headquarters this year. New York-based Goldman and JP Morgan held their meetings in Jersey City and Columbus, Ohio, respectively. Fort Worth-based AMR held its in Los Angeles.
Typically these meetings are the only opportunity for shareholders to get direct contact with and question management and board members. They also unintentionally provide a forum for people to vent their wrath at poor corporate citizens. When something is amiss, these meetings can be embarrassing and grueling for management.
In recent years, shareholder meetings were forums for protests about executive pay and mortgage practices at Goldman Sachs, mortgage foreclosure practices at JPMorgan, and pay practices (executives versus union employees) at American Airlines. Moving their meetings this year resulted in fewer protestors. I doubt it was a coincidence.
Moving the meeting is not an original idea. In 2003 Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) held its shareholder meeting in Atlanta ... more than 2,100 miles from its California headquarters. The company was going through a messy integration of recently acquired Compaq and risked huge protests by employees and former employees if the meeting were held near headquarters. Was it a red flag? Embattled CEO Carly Fiorina was ousted less than two years later.
General Motors (NYSE: GM ) held its meetings in Wilmington, Del., for more than a decade -- before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2008. Newly public again and under new management, the company decided to hold this year's meeting in hometown Detroit.
Courage under fire
GM isn't the only company willing to expose itself despite missteps. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) management was heavily criticized this year at the shareholder meeting in its hometown of Charlotte, N.C. That location away from the epicenter of the financial sector reduces its exposure to protesters, but at least management didn't take additional evasive action.
Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-B ) executives, including the inimitable Warren Buffett, continued their tradition of taking shareholder questions for several hours this year, despite an embarrassing episode related to stock transactions by recently departed executive David Sokol.
Anyone avoiding his or her boss (management avoiding shareholders) is a bad sign. And studies show that companies known for being a good place to work or for social responsibility outperform the market. Thus, an annual shareholders meeting structured to evade shareholders, employees, or protestors -- e.g., moved to a location that will reduce attendance -- is a red flag for investors.
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