Through the past few years I have attended several shareholder meetings. Here are some of my experiences....These meetings really give you a feel for a company and whether you think it can succeed. For one, you can observe the optimism (or pessimism) in the attitude of the officers - believe me, it's apparent. Besides, where else do small investors have a chance to shake hands with the officers of a company and ask them questions directly? You feel like an insider. The first annual meeting I ever attended was I-Flow Corp.'s (IFLOW). The company, which makes all kinds of infusion devises for pain management for the patient to use at home or in the hospital, is close to where I live in Southern California. Since it's a small cap, only a handful of people attended, and several of those were company employees (I didn't know that at the time). I was able to meet the CEO and several other officers and discuss their products with them. Since there was a small group of shareholders in attendance, they took us all on a tour of the plant that proved interesting - I learned a lot about I-Flow's organization and how they process orders, manufacture the devices, maintain cleanliness in packaging, etc. Also, I ate some delicious breakfast rolls, juice, fruit and coffee, which were provided for all! I-Flow distributed many handouts describing the company (a separate sheet for each product - a lot of very interesting detailed information you don't receive in your annual reports). The meeting began - about 15 minutes late, as we had waited until the last group had returned from their tour. The CEO conducted the meeting, which was about 20 minutes in length, and he gave us a slide presentation. Also, he introduced the company officers, all of whom were sitting in the audience. After the meeting, we went to the display table and viewed the various infusion devices, while talking with company representatives. I learned a lot about these devices at that meeting. The entire affair seemed to be rather folksy in manner - I had always thought annual meetings were very formal, using Roberts Rules of Order).My next small cap annual meeting was Bio-Source International (BIOI), a small bio-tech company located in Camarillo, CA, near Los Angeles. Bio-Source develops, manufactures, markets and distributes immunological reagents, test kits and oligonucleotides, which are used in biomedical research. They held their annual meeting in the local country club - very posh, and I felt like a princess as I walked through the lovely hallways and into the main meeting room. They presented us with a very appetizing breakfast display: again, fruit, rolls, juice and coffee, but this time served in silver urns and on silver platters. The meeting seemed somewhat similar to the I-Flow meeting, as shareholders received various sheets on all of their reagents to study. Again, I was able to meet the officers and listen to them respond to audience questions. That same year, I also attended the annual meeting for Vertel Corp. (VRTL) , held in Woodland Hills, CA, near Los Angeles, at the local Hilton Hotel. Vertel provides mediation software for telecommunications networks. Their new mediation software, e*ORB, continues to be adopted by top telecommunications, e-business and manufacturing companies. Now, of course, this meeting also included a wonderful breakfast display as before, but they also did several things we had not seen at the other meetings. They asked us to sign an attendance sheet and then gave us large note pads, handsome pens and rubber balls with the world printed on them - quite nifty. Vertel had a price surge --from under $2 to the $50 range last year (quite exciting!) - but the stock is back down under $2 a share again. I attended their meeting again this May so I could see what the future holds. Last year's meeting was quite upbeat, and I expected some skepticism and hard questions from shareholders this year. Vertel gave a very informative presentation on their company, followed by a Q & A session. They appeared to be very candid and open about the business and attempted to calm our fears about the company's future. I went away feeling we might just make it - and, in fact, might show a profit by early next year. (I am still waiting!)At large meetings things can be a bit more interesting. For instance, this past Spring, at the Bank of America Annual (BAC) meeting, Hugh McColl handed the reins to President and Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Lewis, announcing his resignation at the meeting. He stated he was leaving BAC due to a 25% drop in its stock during the past two years, and at a time when bad loans are rising as the economy slows and customers struggle to repay debt. A shocker to all in attendance. I am sure there were a lot of questions in that audience.At the GE meeting, also in the Spring, there was some lively activity from the many shareholders in attendance. They voted down two proposals - one which required the company to disclose how much they had spent on advertising opposing the dredging of the Hudson river - what a bombshell! Jack Welch admitted that they had spent between $10-$15 million but had opposed the shareowner proposal to require this disclosure. It was also the last appearance for Welsh as CEO. He tried to stay away from the subject of his departure, although several shareholders talked about it in their comments.Abbott Labs (ABT) has spent the past year trying to drop its trouble-prone image, but shareholders at the company's annual meeting in April continued to ask hard questions. A former employee, a researcher, I believe, asked for the resignation of the company's CEO and members of its board of directors, over an alleged price-fixing scheme at TAP Pharmaceuticals Inc (its 50/50 joint venture with Japan's Takeda Chemical Industries Ltd). You usually don't get all this action at a small cap meeting with only a handful of shareholders in attendance.Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett's) -their annual meeting lasts for an entire week-end! About 12,000 people traveled to Omaha for the gathering this year. The meeting was held at the Omaha Civic Auditorium, and when you entered, you felt you had reached the Mall of America. All of the companies he owns display their products which are for sale. Each Berkshire conference opens with a home spun movie, in which Buffett pokes fun at himself. In this year's film, Buffett appeared as Tiger Woods' caddy, drawing huge laughs from the audience. Buffett spends only about 10 minutes on the business meeting and then uses the rest of the time to talk about stocks and investing. I have friends who own Class B shares and they attend each year. They say they get a wonderful learning experience from the "master" himself and they also love all the wonderful food served. I could go on, but you get the idea - I think it is very worthwhile to attend a meeting or two, if you get the chance. Often, just by talking to the officers in an informal way you can learn a lot about a company.Happy DRIPping.Kathy
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