On May 3, Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) held its annual shareholder meeting, taking the opportunity to communicate with shareholders about its strategic vision for the future. As the company seeks to find ways to bolster growth both from its traditional cigarette business and from reduced-risk products, Philip Morris CEO Andre Calantzopoulos and board chairman Louis Camilleri answered questions from investors and gave some insight about what's happening with the tobacco giant. As you'll see below, Philip Morris has high hopes for its future, and it believes that there's a lot it can achieve going forward.
1. No surprises in the voting
The eight proposals up for vote at the Philip Morris shareholder meeting went as the board of directors had recommended. All nominated directors were elected, and an advisory vote on executive compensation approved the proposed package. Shareholders agreed to make future advisory votes on an annual basis, and the performance incentive plan and stock compensation plan for various insiders were approved. There was more significant dissent on the non-employee director compensation side, where 15% of shares voted against the proposal compared to much smaller percentages on other votes. PricewaterhouseCoopers was named the public accounting firm for Philip Morris, and shareholder proposals on human rights issues were soundly defeated.
2. Philip Morris is laser-focused on reduced risk
As we've seen before, Philip Morris is committed to a long-term switch from cigarettes to reduced-risk products. As Calantzopoulos said, "Our relentless effort to develop a portfolio of products that have the potential to both reduce significantly the harm of smoking and be adopted massively and rapidly by consumers has been and will continue to be justified." The CEO pointed to the need for regulatory wisdom in evaluating reduced-risk products, with the understanding that different rules could help foster faster development of products that would be more beneficial to health. With solid performance from its iQOS launch, Philip Morris has high hopes that customers will switch from other cigarette brands to Philip Morris reduced-risk products, bolstering sales and eventually replacing cigarettes entirely.
3. Labor issues are getting recognition
Several shareholders asked questions concerning labor practices, with representative of various groups appearing to speak. Chairman Camilleri responded to those concerns by stating that Philip Morris is sensitive to alleged abuses of the codes that define its workers' rights. The company has pushed for the Farm Labor Practices Group, which includes farms, unions, and various government officials, to work together to find ways to present problems and get them resolved. That process will be slow, and some outliers will still have problems, but Philip Morris appears committed to rooting out bad actors and improving its relationships with its suppliers.
4. Tax reform could have impacts
One shareholder talked about proposed tax legislation, including favorable repatriation provisions and a border tax. Camilleri commented that he'll have to wait to see what proposals end up being considered, but he's hopeful that the result will be favorable. For now, the border tax wouldn't have any impact, although if Philip Morris starts bringing in iQOS products to the U.S. under its collaboration with Altria, then there's the potential for the tax applying. Yet the greater question is whether repatriation could make it easier for Philip Morris to put its cash to work domestically.
5. An Altria merger isn't in the cards
Finally, one shareholder asked whether with Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI) and British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI) merging, Philip Morris would consider a merger with Altria. Camilleri didn't comment, but he did point out that for shareholders who "have been around, you know very well that we don't general follow what BAT does." That sent a clear message that investors shouldn't expect a takeover bid anytime soon.
The Philip Morris shareholder meeting was useful in getting a sense of where the global tobacco giant sees itself moving forward. There's still plenty of uncertainty about its future, but the transformation from cigarettes to reduced-risk products is ongoing and could be a huge game-changer for Philip Morris if it's successful.