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These May Be Our Top-Tips Ever On How To Guarantee A More “Civil” Annual Meeting

Last year, we attended the meeting of a long-term client where we were shocked! Shocked!...to see more women wearing hats and gloves - and more men carrying hats - than we have seen in one place since the 1950s.

There was, as usual for the company, a large contingent of shareholder proponents, and good-sized delegations from several unions – which, in our long experience, often translates to a meeting that is over-long and somewhat raucous. But it turned out to be the best and most civil meeting that anyone could remember.

Early this year, we attended the Whole Foods meeting – which we were expecting to be extremely long – and potentially raucous – in light of the number and nature of shareholder proposals and especially in light of the “Investor Risk Alert” flyer we found under our door the morning of the meeting, accusing the company of being “Bad for the Planet.” But this meeting too – where, much to our surprise, people were being admitted basically with a welcome and a wave of a hand – turned out to be a total love feast, with standing-Os for the management team and for the hard-working employees too.

So what are the top tips for having shareholder meetings like these?

First, pick a nice city to have the meeting in; one where “civility” is part of the local culture and ideally one where you have a nice census of employees and retirees. (The two above were in Lexington, KY – which explained all those hats – and Vancouver, Canada. Other really nice meetings we’ve been to lately have been in Bentonville. AR, for Wal-Mart – Omaha, NB, for Berkshire Hathaway – Princeton, NJ – and St, Louis, MO…And people…don’t rule out NYC these days either!)

Pick a nice venue, where people will be happy to be there and inclined to be on their very best behavior: Nice hotels are excellent venues in these respects, as we’ve advised frequently – with experienced security-staff and with most having strict policies for dealing with picketers, should any show up.

Fill the hall with basically friendly people, who will help to “set the tone” in a positive way: It’s easy to identify local employees, retirees and other local shareowners, to send them personalized invitations, and to extend a special welcome to them…And having them in attendance often sets and even better and stronger and more supportive tone when times are tough, in our experience, than when times are great.

To be sure of setting a “welcoming tone” give attendees something to eat and drink: A related suggestion, and one we’ve published before; have company employees – including senior managers and directors circulating, with name tags, as hosts…Aside from setting a very good tone, many folks with a gripe are happier to air it over coffee…or at the least, will give you a heads-up, and time to prepare a good response.

Be sure, of course, to be just as courteous to shareholder proponents, and to union delegates, and to any other individuals or groups that may want to have “air time” at your meeting as you are to the “friendlies”: This, in our long experience, is a major de-fuser of potentially explosive situations. But have very firm guidelines in place as to the amount of time allotted to each speaker – and maybe to each discussion item – and take pains to explain that these guide- lines are not just to be fair, but are good for all concerned, since time is a very precious commodity these days.

Be scrupulous in enforcing your own guidelines – and be scrupulously fair: both to the “friendlies” in your audience and to declared or potential adversaries, in terms of the sequencing of questions and the times allotted.