The Annual Shareholders' Meeting Will Now Come To Order Online
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It's spring, the time of year when one of the rituals of corporate life unfolds - the annual shareholder meeting. Across the country, publicly traded companies invite shareholders to attend in-person meetings with top executives and board members. But digital technology is changing the time-tested ritual, and not everybody's happy about that. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The annual meeting is a staple of corporate life. It's a chance for even a small shareholder to take the measure of a company's managers, to ask a question or express a beef about a company's actions. But here's the dirty secret about shareholder meetings - unless the company is huge or there's some controversy going on, hardly anyone shows up. Heidi Lewis is general counsel at the utility company Dynegy.
HEIDI LEWIS: Over the years, the shareholder meeting attendance started to dwindle. In fact, the two years prior to us switching to virtual meetings, we had three shareholders one year and then zero the next. And so we had this big room with nobody in it except for security.
ZARROLI: Two years ago, Dynegy became one of a small but growing number of companies to stop holding meetings in person. Instead, they're done online. This wasn't even legal about 15 years ago. Then, the state of Delaware, which is a leader in these matters because so many companies are incorporated there, changed its laws. It decided companies could hold meetings electronically, even by conference call. Broc Romanek, editor of The Corporate Counsel, says some people balked at the idea.
BROC ROMANEK: There was a lot of protests by investors, and that's why you didn't see many of these meetings. The first company to do it was a really small company called Inforte in 2001, and no one complained because they were so small.
ZARROLI: But time has mellowed the opposition and technology has gotten a lot better. Today, a company called Broadridge Financial sells a kind of digital platform that lets companies hold their annual meetings by webcast.
CATHY CONLON: You can be anywhere and attend a meeting and vote your shares and ask a question.
ZARROLI: Cathy Conlon is Broadridge's vice president of strategic development. The company says some 93 companies put their meetings online last year. More than half were exclusively virtual.
CONLON: I think a virtual meeting is just sort of a natural part of the way people experience content today. And I think that we're right there with, you know, where society is going in terms of streaming media and content.
ZARROLI: Conlon says watching a webcast is easier and cheaper than flying to a city and paying for a hotel room, so online meetings tend to attract more shareholder eyeballs. But the idea is still controversial. Amy Borrus of the Council of Institutional Investors says it's fine for companies to webcast their meetings as long as shareholders also have the option to attend in person.
AMY BORRUS: Face time is still important, you know? Investors should have the opportunity once a year to look the CEO and the board members in the eye. And with virtual-only meetings, you know, you could miss out on telling moments, some things that you only get from being in the same room with someone.
ZARROLI: Dynegy's Heidi Lewis says one-on-one contact does matter, but she says the technology behind virtual meetings has gotten pretty good. Some shareholders even like it better.
LEWIS: Sometimes it's a little easier for a shareholder to type in a question and send it to us to answer than actually stand up in a meeting and ask the question on a microphone.
ZARROLI: Lewis says companies still need to keep lines of communication open with their investors, but as more and more of our lives get played out online, the tradition of the annual shareholder meeting is gradually changing. This year, Hewlett-Packard held its annual meeting exclusively online. It's by far the biggest company to do so. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.