The Greening of Annual Meetings Where Hot Topics in the 1980s Related to Takeover Attempts, Environmental Issues Are Big Today

Article excerpt

WHEN shareholders of Ford Motor Company meet in Detroit in early May, they'll be talking about environmental concerns as well as cars. Reason? A shareholder public interest group - "Ceres" - plans to attend, reminding Ford of its need to ensure responsible environmental policies.

Ford will be one of at least 39 companies where Ceres - The Coalition For Environmentally Responsible Economies - will be initiating shareholder actions. Other annual meetings that Ceres will attend, says spokesman Michael Fleming, include those of American Cyanamid, Cooper Industries, International Paper, PepsiCo, and Union Pacific.

Ceres, based in Boston, is made up of investors controlling some $150 billion in pension and mutual fund assets. Members include the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, New York and California state pension funds, and religious groups.

"Many of the companies we'll be attending have fairly decent environmental records," Mr. Fleming says. "Some companies will be asked just to file environmental reports" and sign a 10-point "code of conduct" on environmental behavior. Others will be asked to adopt specific policies. Sometimes the goal will be "to demonstrate to the companies that a large portion of their shareholders are deeply committed to environmental reform."

Welcome to the world of corporate annual meetings, 1991-style! The fact that environmental issues are expected to be among the main concerns at many meetings this year underscores the deep changes that have occurred in the global economy since the bullish 1980s, say corporate experts. Environmental issues have become more important, reflecting soul-searching at many companies since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Many companies are thinking "green." McDonald's, for example, is introducing a low-fat burger and scrapping foam containers as a result of pressure by public interest groups.

During the 1980s, hot topics at annual meetings related largely to mergers and acquisitions, such as shareholder efforts to get rid of "poison pills" - corporate strategies designed to foil takeovers.

Given today's recession, there will be more questions this year about management practices of companies, says Paul Karr, a partner with Deloitte & Touche, a national accounting firm. …