Monday, June 2, 2008

Fun Shareholder Meetings

A friend once asked me about the most fun shareholder meetings to attend. Here is my list:

1. Apple, Inc. (AAPL) To believe how charismatic Steve Jobs is, you have to see him in person. Long-time shareholders always attend, and the techies ask intelligent questions and swap user tips with other shareholders. Plus, the Board is filled with top-level people, including recently, Al Gore.

2. Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A, BRK-B). You can buy the "B" shares to get into this meeting, which were selling at around $4,390 (much less than the "A" shares, which cost $132,350 for one share as of June 2, 2008). Berkshire Hathaway is fun because of the Q&A session with Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger; the live entertainment (Jimmy Buffett and Susan Lucci have appeared recently); and the annual video, which once showed Warren beating LeBron James in a one-on-one game (I still want to buy Warren's "1/8" number jersey, but they don't offer it anywhere!). Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett work together so well, it's almost like seeing an elite, educational Laurel and Hardy show. In addition, there's lots of shopping to be done. I bought some great Fruit of the Loom underwear and some See's Candies at a discount.

Some caveats: the meeting's value depends a bit on the questions asked--if the questions asked are terrible, the meeting won't be as great. Also, this event has gotten so huge that it feels overcrowded--about 31,000 people attended this year. For example, I had to wait in line for about 45 minutes to partake in a food buffet. In addition, some of the events are spread out around Omaha, like Furniture Mart and Gorat's Steakhouse, so you need a car and GPS to be able to experience all the events.

3. Starbucks (SBUX). Starbucks' meeting is similar to Berkshire Hathaway's in the sense that a surprise guest comes every year to perform. In 2008, k.d. lang sang three beautiful songs, an experience worth attending just for her. Obviously, coffee is offered, but the meeting itself is the reason to attend. Starbucks usually unveils new goals and new items to the shareholders first, and I knew more about future plans than non-Seattle employees did for about a month after the meeting. A goody-bag is offered to shareholders on the way out. One downside--a huge line awaits all shareholders wanting to attend, so get there early and hope it doesn't rain!

4. Peet's (PEET). Peet's meeting is fun for several reasons. First, it is still a relatively small company, so the meetings feel like a family event. Second, the food and coffee are delicious. Third, sometimes the meeting is held at a roasting facility, which allows shareholders to get a sense of how the business is run.

5. Electronic Arts (ERTS). This one is a kick. If you want to see the environment in which video game designers work, check out this shareholder meeting. ERTS has an arcade, air hockey, foosball, and several other games, all for free. I spent an hour (okay, three) reliving my high school days in the arcade playing some John Madden football. Some other online games are apparently offered on the computers near the arcade, but I used that to check up on a work matter (I had to review a tentative court ruling the day of the meeting). ERTS has a Starbucks inside its company. You never have to leave the company, basically. It's a bit like Yahoo's set-up, where it's a little city within a company. The presentation also includes a preview of upcoming games on a big screen. And the best part of of it all? ERTS gives out a free video game to its attendees every year. Booyah!

6. Google (GOOG) is a new company, but it knows how to take care of shareholders. Food is offered (a friend told me they served filet mignon in 2008), and the founders sit on stools in casual-wear and answer questions in an informal setting.

7. Intuit (INTU). This one I mention only because they have given out valuable free software in the past. If you buy your Quicken software and live locally in Mountain View, CA, you might be better off just buying one share of the company and attending the meeting. The former CEO, Stephen Bennet, was very friendly at the meeting I attended a few years ago--he even replied to an email I sent. (I try to praise and point out responsive CEOs.)

Please add your own favorites in the "comments" section. I am always looking for fun shareholder meetings. I heard McDonald's and Coca-Cola's meetings are great, but I am not traveling across the country on my own dime for a shareholder meeting until I get more information. The big one I've neglected to mention is Walmart's annual meeting--it's supposed to be a big bash, but it's hard to take a few days off to travel to Arkansas and keep up on work.

Curt Hazlett, in a March 28, 2005 article, “Annual Meetings Can Be Valuable Tools for Journalists,” describes one reason I go to shareholder meetings–they offer valuable insight into a company:

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