The other week, Symantec, the Fortune 500 company that makes computer security software, held the first Internet-only annual meeting. There were a couple screw-ups, however.
Symantec, for reasons that only a Stone Age man could reason, decided the meeting should be broadcast in audio only. With plenty of other companies holding video press conferences, this was the equivalent of a Super Bowl-caliber football team handing the ball to a running back and having him purposely run 10 yards in the wrong direction.
Further, three of the 11 Symantec directors, who make $250,000 a year, didn’t bother to show up. This number was greater than the two questions allowed from investors. There was no opportunity to follow up, nor was there any way of knowing if other investors had questions.
So much for an open forum. Prisoners at Stalin’s 20-minute monkey trials had more rights than Symantec investors, before they were shipped off to the gulag.
Annual meetings are always tightly scripted, but this was a real kangaroo court. One can only imagine the subsequent meeting in the Oval Office between the president and Mary Schapiro, his crusading chair of the SEC.
“Mary, bring me up to date on what your agency is doing about Symantec.”
“First, my staff has recommended that all future annual meetings should be video conferenced on the Internet, since every sophisticated investor is assumed to be iChat compatible,” she responded.
“Second, any stockholder with more than 100 shares can submit a question one week in advance. Fifty of these questions will be picked randomly and answered by the CEO or the appropriate executive. Further, all questions will be posted on the company’s website for everyone to read before the meeting.
“Third, each director must stand and introduce him or herself. If a director misses two meetings in a row he or she must return all directors’ fees, and will be automatically removed from the board.
“You can count on me to push these directives through my SEC,” she said, with authority.
“It’s a good start,” said the president. “But I’m not sure it goes far enough.”
Schapiro paused. She knew her way around a poker table, and had cards in reserve. She decided this was the time to go all in.
“Mr. President, let’s be practical. Big business will fight us all the way. They’ll bring out the lobbyists and they’ll bring out the big guns. But with Bernie Madoff, and the bank and auto bailouts, they can’t win this fight for openness.
“I say we go the nuclear option. We order, and enforce, that they provide the ‘real’ numbers to all investors. We demand that they report simple P&L reports on the internet — they have to supply the same raw data they get initially, before the lawyers and accountants work their magic. The shareholders will receive it at the same time the brass does.
”Lastly, with new fin regs, transparency talk and the new consumer rights atmosphere, we got them cold!”
At that point David Axelrod, the president’s chief political strategist, who had been snoring lightly in the corner after a two-martini lunch at the Oval Room, jumped to his feet. His heart soared to 160 beats a minutes, campaign slogans flashing through his mind like an Ole Miss cheerleader bouncing up and down. This was a life-changing moment. He could smell the second term.
“Mr. President,” he said, “Mary has just given you the little investor that got destroyed before you came into office. This is our chance to reach Middle America that we need so badly.
“Even we can’t screw this one up.”
Bill Regardie was the founder and publisher of Regardie’s Magazine.