These days, anyone with an internet connection and complaint can easily communicate their displeasure with a company's behavior to its leadership (and the world), though of course, it's hard to stand out from the crowd. But back when Evelyn Davis got started in her vocation of shareholder activism, it meant going to corporations' annual meetings -- dozens of them a year -- and calling out executives face-to-face.
In this Motley Fool Answers "What's Up, Alison?" segment, hosts Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp reflect on the scene-stealing life of the infamous activist who was never shy about taking on the stuffed shirts.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Nov. 20, 2018.
Robert Brokamp: So, Alison, what's up?
Alison Southwick: Well, kind of some sad news. The world recently lost what Jena McGregor at The Washington Post called, "a theatrical but persistent thorn in the side of corporate executives," by which I mean Evelyn [Davis]. She was a colorful character and an indefatigable shareholder activist prior to her passing on November 4th, so let's take a look back on her life, shall we?
Brokamp: Let's do it!
Southwick: Were you familiar with her?
Brokamp: I've never heard the name before so I'm in for a treat, I think.
Southwick: Here we go. Evelyn Yvonne De Jong was born in 1929 in Amsterdam. She was the daughter of a neurologist father and a psychologist mother. She grew up, as she put it, on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean but the very right side of the track so, yes, they were wealthy. However, in 1942, while her father was lecturing in the United States, the Nazis arrested the family because they were half-Jewish and sent Evelyn, her mother, and her brother to a series of concentration camps, eventually in Czechoslovakia. She was there for quite a while.
After the war she ended up in the U.S. and started investing with the money she got from a divorce settlement and her father's will. She did pretty well and she started asking tough questions at shareholder meetings. In 1965 she started publishing her annual newsletter called "Highlights and Lowlights" of annual meetings with her views on business, politics, travel, and shareholder activism. As she proclaimed, "Institutional investors get treated like royalty, individual investors like peasants."
Brokamp: She was a real Fool! She was the original Fool!
Southwick: Well, let me tell you about some of the things she did and see if you aspire to this. According to The Washington Post, Evelyn would attend roughly 40 shareholder meetings a year crusading for many goals, including democratizing corporate governance. She would love to lambast errant CEOs and she admits to attracting attention to Evelyn Davis. She told People magazine in 1996 that advancing corporate democracy and educating her readers was not her sole mission or even her primary objective. "The main thing," she said, "is to keep my name out in front."
She loved to cause a scene at shareholder meetings, including stripping down to a bathing suit demanding the CEO, himself, come move the mic closer to her chair [and sure enough, the CEO got down on his hands and knees, unplugged the microphone, and moved it to where she wanted.] This kept coming up in articles. She wore hot pants to a shareholder meeting. I don't even know what hot pants are.
Brokamp: I was going to say. What are hot pants?
Southwick: But they are controversial. She wore a batman mask to ABC's shareholder meeting after they premiered the campy Batman show back in the '60s.
Brokamp: Was she supporting it or protesting it?
Southwick: I have no idea.
Brokamp: I hope supporting it.
Southwick: She wore an aluminum dress to a U.S. Steel meeting.
Southwick: She told Lee Iacocca he was fat. She also told someone else, "You're no threat to me. You're too fat." She informed the chairman of Citigroup that she had him by the "things" that people sometimes say they have men by.
Brokamp: Hm, interesting!
Southwick: She did all of this in front of shareholder meetings. Rooms of people. Rooms of, let's be honest, men in suits. Stuffy men in suits, who would jeer, sometimes cheer. Some of the issues she fought for were high CEO compensation, increased transparency, and ending the system of staggered terms for directors. I need to look into why that's not a hot topic.
In 1996, People magazine called her, "the nation's most obstreperous corporate gadfly," in 2002, Vanity Fair called her the most famous and least-loved shareholder activist in the country, and in 1993 Washingtonian magazine named her one of the 25 most annoying Washingtonians. But, let's be honest. That's saying something.
Brokamp: That is saying something. How do you choose?
Southwick: When Peter Carlson of the Post wrote a profile on her in 2003, she called him up and suggested the headline herself, which was, "I was gifted with both extraordinary beauty and extraordinary brains, and I've used them both to my utmost advantage." Even though she passed away this week, she already had her gravestone [although it was more like a monument] installed in 1981 in Rock Creek Park.
Brokamp: Wow! That is estate planning right there.
Southwick: It lists her resume, her many marriages and divorces [I think there were four], and the phrase, "Power is greater than love and I did not get where I am by standing in line nor being shy," which is very true. One of her ex-husbands is also buried there, but it only lists his accomplishment as being her ex-husband.
Nell Minow, who listeners of Motley Fool Money will recognize [she's also a big shareholder activist] was quoted in the 2002 Vanity Fair piece and sums it up nicely. She was quoted as saving, "The Evelyn Davises of the future are on the Yahoo message boards." Remember this is 2002. Minow says, "It used to be that you had to be financially independent and willing to be very controversial in order to confront corporate management. Now you can sit in your bedroom at your computer and be a shareholder activist. This is going to create a million new Evelyns."
So shareholder activism has become easier because of the internet, but let's be honest. I wouldn't even expect Bro to wear hot pants to a shareholder meeting...
Brokamp: Is that a challenge?
Southwick: ... whatever they are. And that, Bro, is what's up.