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Getting to Know a Company

George L Smyth

It is enjoyable to evaluate companies when a serious purchase is under consideration. For me, the comparison aspect is only the first part of the process. The other part of the process is to ensure that I select a company that I respect and of which I wish to take an active part.

This thinking may be contrary to the idea of making as much money in as short a time as possible, but if I am selecting a company to which I will be making regular purchases over the following decade, this becomes important to me.

After making my decision, I attempt to learn even more about the company, as would any part owner. Make no mistake about it, as a shareholder, part owner is exactly the role one takes. Therefore, it makes sense to get intimate with the company.

One means of doing this is to attend the yearly shareholders meeting. Unfortunately, few of us can do this, as the meeting location is seldom close to where we live. My advantage is that Wilmington, Delaware -- where Coke holds its meeting each year -- is a mere 100 miles north of me. This allows me to take a day of leave from work and attend.

One can use the visit as a learning process in understanding how the company operates. My first Coke shareholders meeting was in 1998, not long after Roberto Goizueta's passing and the reigns had been passed to Douglas Ivester. At that time Coke's stock value was reaching its high and this fact was reflected at the meeting. All comments and questions were positive.

Last year, as the Asian economic crisis reared its ugly head, Coke's value had dropped. I wondered if the meeting would take on a negative atmosphere, but few people in the audience worried about this, as the questions posed to Mr. Ivester were very positive. I attributed this to the fact that the majority of shareholders own stock through their Drip, and are more attuned to the long-term aspects of ownership. I entered a report of the meeting on the Coke discussion board after returning.

This year was different.

Coke has had the attention of individuals who are making charges of racial discrimination within the company. In order to address the issue, several rows of seats were set aside for some individuals who had ridden a bus from Atlanta. The meeting started late as everyone awaited the appearance of Jesse Jackson, who sat a row in front of me. The meeting became a sort of diversity workshop, as a minister, a female Coke worker, and Mr. Jackson took the microphone and blasted Coke.

This was also the first time that I had seen anything on the ballot other than the typical confirmation of the board of directors and auditing firm. Items concerning compensation issues, biotechnology, and recycling programs found their way onto the ballot. The last of the three drew the yelling of a protester following its demise, followed by an unsuccessful, halfhearted attempt of four young women to start a chant.

Of course, one never knows whom they'll meet at such a gathering. I heard one Fool during the comment/question portion make the statement that Coke could stream the meeting on the Internet for less than the cost of the catering (certainly, streaming the meeting would make it possible for more shareholders to experience the goings-on of the meeting). Sure enough, I caught up with  Rob Landley (TMF Oak) after the meeting and we compared notes about issues in the meeting, disagreed about Microsoft, and talked programming in general.

So my education continues as I watch this company. I wonder if the issues that were brought up in the meeting will affect the company as it attempts to find its way back into the favorable graces of the investing public. I wonder if some of them will catch fire and work as a distraction. Without the firsthand, intimate knowledge gained by attending the meeting, I would be completely at the mercy of the media for my information.

If you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend attending such a meeting to learn more about the company that you partially own. You are sure to learn at least something during your experience.

By the way, you may be wondering about the question that I had planned to ask. Due to the amount of time devoted to the diversity issue, questions to the CEO began about the time the meeting would normally have ended. I was one of several people left standing with a question at the time Mr. Daft, CEO, closed the meeting. Pull another feather from the cap.