As corporate annual meetings go virtual due to COVID-19, something is lost
This story is being updated as we hear from companies about their annual meeting plans.
By Maria Saporta
Most Georgia-based companies hold their annual meeting beginning this week.
In days of normalcy, most meetings take place in person – giving shareowners the rare opportunity to be in the presence of company executives and directors.
But these days, nothing is normal.
Two of Georgia’s biggest companies – Coca-Cola and UPS – have decided to hold virtual annual meetings this because of the health risks associated with the Coronavirus.
The Home Depot, Georgia’s largest company, has not yet decided whether it will hold its May 21 annual meeting in person or virtually.
Home Depot is a company that takes full advantage of its annual meetings – dating back to when its co-founders – Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank – invited shareowners, that included employees to let them know what was working and what needed improvement.
“We haven’t announced what we’re going to do yet,” Steve Holmes, a company spokesman, wrote in an email. “Probably will make the final call and announce soon.”
Home Depot already has notified its shareholders of the possibility that its annual meeting could be a virtual gathering – which would be the first one in the company’s history.
“We currently intend to hold our 2020 Annual Meeting of Shareholders in person,” the company stated. “However, as part of our effort to maintain a safe and healthy environment at the meeting, we are closely monitoring the impacts of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, as well as the public health and travel concerns our shareholders may have and the protocols that federal, state, and local governments may impose. For that reason, we reserve the right to reconsider the date, time, and/or means of convening our annual meeting, including holding the meeting solely by means of remote communications.”
Update: On April 21, Home Depot announced that its annual meeting would be virtual, and it added that it ” plans to return to a physical, in-person meeting format next year for its 2021 Annual Meeting of Shareholders.”
Several companies initially intended to meet in person, but a slew of them have announced in the last couple of weeks that they will be going virtual.
One is Veritiv, one of Atlanta’s newest Fortune 500 companies.
When asked about the company’s plans, Mary Laschinger, Veritiv’s CEO, responded in an email.
“Veritiv as well as Kelloggs Company (a board I am on) are having virtual annual meetings,” she wrote. “I suspect this could become the norm because it had been trending in that direction prior to the current crisis. We are also currently having board meetings via phone/webex, but I would not expect that to continue. It is just too hard to have discussions.”
The Coca-Cola’s annual meeting on April 22 will be its first virtual affair. Historically, most of Coca-Cola’s annual meetings took place in Wlimington, DE, which actually is the legal headquarters of the beverage company.
Then in 2009, the company moved its annual meeting to metro Atlanta – first in Gwinnett, then in Cobb and eventually to downtown Atlanta. Since 2016, Coca-Cola chose the World of Coke as its regular venue – treating shareholders to a free tour of the attraction after the annual meeting.
In a press release, the company explained why it decided to go virtual in 2020.
“The company’s deepest sympathies go out to those who have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” the release stated. “We are carefully following government guidelines around the world and taking precautionary steps to do what we can to prevent the further spread of the virus. We have – and always will – put the health, safety and security of people first.”
UPS still holds its annual meeting in Wilmington, its legal headquarters, rather than in metro Atlanta, its corporate headquarters.
But on April 10, the company informed shareholders that if they wanted to attend the May 14 meeting, they would have to do so online, “due to the public health concerns related to the novel coronavirus…”
It will be an important annual meeting for UPS because it will be Dave Abney’s last as the company’s CEO. Carol Tomé, a director of UPS since 2003, is the retired CEO of the Home Depot. She will take over as CEO on June 1.
Then there’s SunTrust, now Truist. I can’t help to feel nostalgic about Atlanta-based SunTrust, which held its last annual meeting in April 2019. At the time, it already had announced its intention to merge with Winston-Salem-based BB&T and locate the combined bank’s headquarters to Charlotte.
So, Truist will be virtual for its first-ever annual meeting. On April 1, it announced that its April 27 annual meeting, originally planned to have been held at the Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, would now be online.
One company that’s been virtual for years is NCR Corp. It opted to go virtual in 2015, a first for a major Georgia-based company. It only perpetuated a feeling that the public company preferred to operate as privately as it could. When I went to the company’s 2011 annual meeting as a press person, the company denied me access (even though I had attended previous NCR annual meetings).
Over the years, I’ve realized that the way a company approaches its annual meetings often reflects how it treats its various stakeholders. Some annual meetings are viewed as a “check-the-box” affair, and company executives will brag about how short the meetings were or how few questions were asked.
But those companies have missed an opportunity to connect with their shareholders, employees, consumers and the community.
In a post Coronavirus world, it would be unfortunate for companies to use that as an excuse to no longer hold annual meetings in person. We have precious few opportunities to interact with business executives and corporate directors, and in person annual meetings are one of them.
So, in the spirit of openness and transparency, let’s hope that by next year’s annual meeting season, we can return to normalcy by gathering in person.
2020 Annual Meetings of key Georgia companies:
Asbury Automotive Group Inc. – Virtual – announced April 10
Wednesday, April 21, 2020, at 8:00 a.m.
Cousins Properties – Virtual
Tuesday, April 21, 2020, at 11:30 a.m.
NCR Corp. – Virtual
Tuesday, April 21, 2020, at 12:30 p.m.
Coca-Cola Co. – Virtual – announced April 8
Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 8:30 a.m.
Synovus – Virtual – announced April 8
Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 10 a.m.
Genuine Parts – Virtual – announced April 1
Monday, April 27, 2020 at 10 a.m.
Truist – formerly SunTrust – Virtual – announced April 1
Tuesday, April 27, 2020 at 11 a.m.
Rollins Inc. – TBD
Tuesday, April 28, 2020 at 12:30 p.m.
Veritiv Corporation – Virtual
Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 9 a.m.
AGCO Corp. – TBD
Thursday, April 30 at 9 a.m. at AGCO headquarters
AFLAC – Virtual
Monday, May 4, 2020 @ 10 a.m.
Equifax – TBD
Thursday, May 7, 2020, 9:30 a.m.
PulteGroup Inc. – TBD
Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 1 p.m.
Newell Brands Inc. – Virtual – announced April 15
Tuesday, May 12, 2020, at 9:00 a.m.
Primerica Financial Services – TBD
Wednesday, May 13, 2020, at 10:00 a.m.
United Parcel Service – Virtual – announced April 10
Thursday, May 14, 2020 8:00 a.m.
Norfolk-Southern Corp. – Virtual
Thursday, May 14, 2020 at 8:30 a.m.
Invesco Ltd – TBD
Thursday, May 14, 2020 at 1:00 p.m.
InterContinental Exchange – TBD
Friday, May 15, 2020 at 8:30 a.m. at
Haverty’s – TBD
Friday, May 15, 2020 at 10 a.m.
Home Depot – Virtual – announced April 21
Thursday, May 21, 2020 at 9 a.m.
Interface – TBD
Monday, May 22, 2020 at 11 a.m.
Southern Co. – Virtual– announced April 13
Wednesday, May 27, 2020 at 10 a.m.