Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Passing of a Corporate Gadfly

Among the tasks I assigned my staff and myself as editor and publisher of Chain Store Age was attending annual shareholders meetings of public retail companies. We would travel all over the country. To Minneapolis for Target, or as it was formerly known, Dayton Hudson. To Cincinnati for Federated Department Stores. To Bentonville, Ark., for Walmart. To Toronto for Campeau Corp., the real estate company that bought Federated and Allied Stores in an ill-fated attempt to marry shopping center ownership with department store companies. To Troy, Mich., for Kmart. Some retailers, like Woolworth and Sears, held meetings in different cities each year. So did J.C. Penney. 

During one of Penney’s meetings in New York in the late 1980s, attended by more than 500 shareholders, the highlight, or lowlight, depending on your point of view, was the shareholder question and answer period. 

(Now, if you never experienced an annual stockholders meeting, let me advise you they are mostly dry affairs. Corporate recitations of sales and earnings with a few pronouncements of new strategic initiatives. Sounds boring, and they are. My staff attended them because they often were the only time we had access to top executives as they usually held press conferences before or after the meeting). 

Most of the shareholders in the audience were current or retired company employees concerned their retirement pensions and benefits were not being jeopardized by mismanagement or profligate management.  

And then there were the corporate gadflies who challenged companies to be more transparent and democratic. Gadflies held stock in dozens if not hundreds of companies. They would criss-cross the country to pester executives with arcane, sometimes inane, inquiries. 

The most prominent of these stockholder gadflies were the Gilbert brothers and Evelyn Y. Davis. They did not like each other. At times they quarreled openly during meetings, the chairmen being unable to referee their repartee. 

I bring all this to your attention because Evelyn Y. Davis died Sunday. She was 89 ( She was unmistakeable. The New York Times obituary commented on her notable apparel. But it was her sharp Dutch-accented voice that impressed her presence on me, so much so that some 20 years later, while listening to but not watching a White House press conference, I was instantly drawn to the television when I heard her distinctive voice. 

Evelyn always got the microphone at corporate meetings. At the aforementioned Penney meeting she asked then chairman and CEO William Howell if the company was a fashion retailer. For sure, Howell replied. To which Evelyn wanted to know, why then did the wife of the vice president of merchandising wear a naugahyde dress to a recent fashion event? After the audience stopped laughing, Howell said he could offer no explanation. 

I haven’t been to an annual shareholders meeting in more than a dozen years. I am not aware if gadflies still exist to torment current chairmen. The Gilbert brothers are long gone as now so too is Evelyn Y. Davis. I’m glad I had the opportunity to witness them at the peak of their dedication to enlightened corporate governance.