Over the past few months, I have attended around 25 shareholder meetings. I have written about specific meetings (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) but now that most major corporations have had their meetings, a general overview of the season is in order.
I attended these meetings as a member of a team that aids in the construction and maintenance of investment portfolios. Whenever I spoke to these corporations, I did so first and foremost in that capacity: from the perspective of a Christian investor working for an institutional shareholder – not as an activist, but as an investor that is opposedto corporate activism. There’s certainly a lot to oppose these days, but there have also been highly encouraging developments, both through the annual meetings and our engagement outside those channels.
It was only after I was ignored, dismissed, and condescended to that I swapped my “concerned investor” hat for my “financial journalist” hat. The fact that I was often ignored as a shareholder, but responded to as a journalist, is indicative of the root problem in corporate America; executives, disconnected from investors, who see their primary role as managing negative media PR, not serving shareholders.
There was a palpable sense through these meetings that leadership was on edge, and very careful to avoid saying anything that might upset the activists on the progressive side. Routinely, our genuine questions were ignored in favor of opportunities to pontificate on various oppressed groups and corporate commitment to them. “Questions” along the lines of “What is your attitude towards diversity and inclusion?” would receive extensive, in-depth responses, whereas our questions about religious liberty were all but ignored. When the questions were responded to, the answers were usually less than satisfactory; for a recent example, see business-review site Yelp. Though Yelp did actually respond to my question verbatim, they did so in a condescending, disinterested way, repeating boiler-plate rhetoric instead of addressing the substance of my inquiry. (Yelp also had to face a shareholder resolution from a seeming far-left activist to turn them into a public-benefit corporation.)
Many of these large, Silicon Valley-based tech companies seem to be operating under the assumption that the only people they have to be worried about are shareholder activists and other secular progressive institutions. Until recently, this has been true, in a sense: Christian and conservative investors have generally failed to show up to annual meetings, whereas those on the other side are extremely well organized and diligent. It’s not hugely surprising, then, that these corporations have often ignored or dismissed my attempts at engagement.
Many of the annual meetings I attended were for companies that have endorsed the Equality Act and signed statements opposing religious liberty laws and abortion restrictions – and, most recently, attacked bills that restrict gender transition procedures for minors.Exelon, Cigna, and Corning were among the first. All 3 ignored my questions.
In the case of Cigna (the health insurance giant that explicitly taught its employees about Christian’s alleged religious “privilege.”) they implied at the end of the question session that there were no more question, even though mine had been ignored. Corning said “That’s it. That concludes our Q&A portion” after ignoring my question, and Exelon stated explicitly that there were “no further questions” despite mine being unaddressed.
I would soon find out that this was typical – “Q&A” portions often last just a few minutes and tend to serve as little more than an opportunity for management to express their deep commitment to secular social causes.
Often, our questions were simply not answered. When they were answered, it was usually in the style of bunching them in with other questions on the same topic and then substantially misrepresenting their content; e.g. “We have received a number of questions about how and when we should engage in the political sphere.” In the case of Dell, a computer technology company, they went to extreme lengths to avoid publicly engaging with us. Our question, also about their support for the Equality Act, was ignored at the annual meeting on the basis of not being “appropriate” for the subject of the meeting. The problem is that they put an extensive statement about their commitment to “a diverse workforce, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with different abilities and other underrepresented groups” in their proxy material for the meeting. How can a question about topic introduced by the material made for the meeting not be relevant to that same meeting?
But when management did actually answer questions, they were often very revealing and even productive. Take the example of AT&T, owner of CNN and the world’s largest telecommunications network. After I, and others, questioned them on their involvement in the social and political issues mentioned above, they inadvertently laid out an excellent case for why they should not be involved in politics at all. We wrote about this extensively for National Review here.
Here’s the short version: in an attempt to defend their corporate culture of extensive political engagement, AT&T CEO John Stankey described in detail why it is precarious, counter-productive, and dangerous for CEOs and corporations to be involved in culture wars and associated political controversies. Yes, that doesn’t mean that AT&T will stop, but they accidentally strengthened the case for the biblically-grounded notion of faithful stewardship and undermined the case for their own extensive political activism.
We had a similar experience at Target’s annual meeting. We pressed Target on their corporate culture, as they had removed (and then restored) two allegedly “transphobic” books from their digital catalogue last November. This was a text-book case for corporate engagement: not only did we have a moral case (books that question the wisdom of giving children drugs that impede or outright reverse their natural development should exist) but we also had a practical basis: when Target banned those books, they brought negative press on themselves and demonstrated a lack of commitment to their shareholders.
But what we did not know until shortly before the annual meeting was that Target had reversed the reversal, re-banning the books via a quietly-introduced new policy that, in effect, gives them carte blanche to remove any book that runs afoul of secular orthodoxy. This was only confirmed after we sent an email to the investor relations department, and it was re-asserted after we asked again at the annual meeting.
Or we could look at the example of hotel giant Marriott. When we pushed them on their endorsement of the Equality Act, they changed their tune in a subtle but substantial way. Marriott had gone a step further than many corporations that endorsed the Equality Act by saying they were “proud” to support the bill and that their “principles of non-discrimination extend to all travelers and include sexual orientation and gender identity.” When we asked about how the Equality Act would severely weaken religious liberty protections, Marriott changed their position: yes, they still support the Equality act, but they “also support the ongoing deliberation that will continue as the U.S. Senate considers the legislation, which may address some of the concerns you raised.”
In the case of both AT&T and Target, we discovered things we would not know if we had not engaged. In the case of Marriott, a single shareholder question was enough to get turn “proud” support into something much more qualified. We put pressure on all 3, showing them that they have another constituency, and that they cannot merely pander to radical secular activists without hearing from the other side.
As for the other side: I have been attending meetings for over 3 months. The impression I have gotten is that the tide is finally starting to turn. The cracks in the wall of the whole corporate-activist system are becoming harder to ignore. The corporations that are the most committed to this secular, anti-traditional values ideology, are resorting to more and more extreme measures to censor dissenting shareholders. Engaging with these corporations has helped us uncover the extent of their biased activism, which means they will be easier to oppose. When they behave in ways destructive to their shareholders, ignore shareholders who have a Christian and conservative perspective, and support unethical policies, we let people know. Many of these corporations have actually engaged with me in a productive way, moderating their position and acknowledging the controversy. And outside the domain of annual meetings, I am currently in the middle of productive conservations with several small- and mid-cap companies that agree with our position against corporate activism.
When I attended my first annual shareholder meeting in April, many in Christian and conservative circles still operated under the decades-old assumption that corporations were “on their side.” Now that annual meeting season is over, that is no longer the case. The extent of “woke capital” is being exposed and Christians and conservatives are starting to take notice. Through a few short months which consisted of typing some questions into a box while I sat through annual meetings, and sending some emails to Investor Relations’ departments, I have been able to shift the needle ever so slightly in the corporate board room. It has never been easier or more important to engage with corporations. I invite the rest of you to join me.
Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”