Get Up Close and Personal at Annual Meetings

By Steve Dinnen

Dan Houston is a competent, confident business executive, a man well chosen to lead Principal Financial Group Inc. You could have attested to this yourself on May 16 had you attended the company’s annual meeting at its downtown Des Moines campus.

Alas, as Houston spoke about his vision to shape Principal into an even bigger, better financial services firm than it now is, very few people besides officers and directors was there to listen. This was not the fault of Principal but rather that of the hordes of shareholders who maybe figured it was too nice a day to spend an hour or so hearing the direction that lies ahead for the money they have invested.

To be sure, shareholder meetings are not the sole, definitive measure by which to judge the merits of an investment. They’re usually low-key affairs meant to conduct little official business besides electing directors and approving outside auditors (though I still well recall witnessing a slugfest in Findlay, Ohio, between steelmaker USX Corp. and corporate takeover artist Carl Icahn as he tried to install his own board).

But at least an annual meeting puts the company leader on a personal stage with you, where he or she can speak in person—and be spoken to—about past performance and future plans. You get to judge the soundness of these explanations and see for yourself the people who are running the firm where you have entrusted your investment dollars.

These are brief encounters, and if your company is based in another time zone it’s not practical (or tax-deductible) to jet over to the meeting. But how often do you have a chance to look Dan Houston or any other CEO in the eye and ask whatever it is about their company that interests you? If they can take the time, so might you.

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