Low-key Home Depot annual meeting shows various views

By Maria Saporta

Maybe it’s a good sign for Home Depot that its annual meeting Thursday morning only lasted 70 minutes.

The low-key annual meeting hit a poignant emotional note when Home Depot Chairman and CEO Frank Blake introduced four associates from Joplin, Mo. Blake awarded them with the company’s “Angel Award” in the name of their fellow associate, Dean Wells, who died during massive tornado while trying to protect customers.

Shareholders gave the Joplin associates a long and enthusiastic standing ovation, and they applauded when Blake spoke about Joplin, saying: “We are committed to the community, and we’re rebuilding that store.”

Overall, the comments and questions from shareholders were respectful and thoughtful — sometimes from opposite ends of the spectrum.

For example, one shareholder, Buddy Smith, spoke against the company sponsoring gay pride events and being in favor of gay marriage. Smith, a representative from the American Family Association, said he had more than 474,000 signatures of people from all 50 states who were going to boycott Home Depot until it took a neutral stance on gay issues.

“We are a company that respects the diversity of our associates and customers,” Blake said in response.

Then, Julie Goodridge, president of Northstar Asset Management, commended Blake for his comment saying she has been in a lesbian marriage.

There were other similar give and takes. As in most of Home Depot’s recent annual meetings, a shareholder urged the company to quit selling glue traps that kill rodents and other animals in a gruesome and painful manner.

But then another shareholder said he had just bought a glue trap, and it “was very successful.”

One retired shareholder urged the company to hire more senior citizens as greeters in the stores.

The issue of the company’s reporting of its diversity measures and results was mentioned by several. A shareholder proposal from Trillium Asset Management said the company should make public information that it provides its annual filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That proposal received about 30 percent of the vote from shareholders.

The back-and-forth between shareholders motivated Janice Mathis, vice president of the Rainbow Push Coalition in Atlanta, to make a comment.

“To some extent, you are between a rock and a hard place,” she told Blake about the company’s public policy positions. “Since you can’t please all of us anyway, help stabilize the housing market” especially in helping reduce the number of foreclosures.

One shareholder proposal did pass. William Steiner of Piermont, N.Y., had submitted a proposal urging the company to amend its bylaws to allow shareholders owning at least 15 percent of the outstanding common stock to have the power to call a special shareowner meeting.

Another shareholder said he had shopped at Home Depot’s Vinings store last weekend, and that “service was 1,000 percent better” than it had been in the past.

In fact, one long-time observer of the company mentioned after the event that the mellower tone of the annual meeting was a stark contrast to the days when former Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli ran the company.

Then annual meetings attracted large numbers of shareholders who were quite upset about the decline in customer service at the stores, the high level of executive compensation and the company’s soft economic performance.

But in 2011, it’s a much different picture. Blake was able to report positive financial results for 2010 and how Home Depot’s increased focus on customer service was paying off.

In all, it was a relatively calm meeting with a lower turnout of shareholders from previous meetings.

And for Home Depot, Atlanta’s largest company with $68 billion in annual sales, that’s probably a good thing.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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