Friday, September 25, 2009

Symantec's Annual Shareholder Meeting (2009)

I attended Symantec’s annual shareholder meeting on September 23, 2009. The company offered shareholders a goodies bag that included a complimentary copy of Norton Online Backup; a zip-up notebook; a nice pen; and a small padlock (symbolizing Symantec’s security focus). Approximately thirty attendees were treated to coffee, juice, and pastries.

I was looking forward to this meeting for two reasons: one, the Investor Suffrage Movement asked me to move Proposal No. 3 on behalf of another shareholder; and two, this would be new CEO Enrique Salem’s first year handling the annual meeting.

Chairman and former CEO John Thompson opened the meeting and introduced various Board and executive team members. After Mr. Thompson was done, Executive VP and General Counsel Scott Taylor allowed me to move Proposal No. 3 (sponsoring shareholder: Kenneth Steiner) and to provide a short explanation of the proposal. I’ve been to many shareholder meetings, but this was my first time moving a proposal. I delivered a short summary about the proposal and then sat down.

One quick aside: I attended Symantec’s meeting last year and was very impressed with then-CEO John Thompson. I was looking forward to seeing him again this year, but had forgotten that corporations tend to despise outside shareholder proposals. Responding to such proposals takes up attorney time and internal resources. The usual corporate attitude is that if shareholders don’t like the way the executives run the company, they can sell their shares. So perhaps I should not have been surprised that while I was reading the presentation, Chairman John Thompson, seated only several feet from me, was staring at me with a “Make My Day” expression. (To his credit, Mr. Salem recognized me from last year and skipped the stare-down.) Thankfully, after the meeting, Mr. Thompson was his usual charismatic self, entertaining various attendees with some stories. Mr. Thompson appears to be in great shape and has lost some weight since last year.

After I moved the proposal and delivered the short summary, Mr. Taylor closed the polls and announced preliminary results. Proposal No. 3 passed. After Symantec takes additional steps--such as amending its bylaws--the threshold for calling special meetings will be 10% ownership, down from 25% ownership.

Mr. Taylor then introduced President and CEO Salem, who delivered a brief presentation about Symantec’s accomplishments. I’ve listed what I consider to be the most interesting information below:

1. 120 million consumers use Symantec’s software.

2. Symantec’s customer base is 30% consumer, 70% enterprise.

3. Symantec wants to “commoditize infrastructure,” which means driving costs out of the environment (I asked Mr. Salem to clarify this term after the meeting. He gave me an example of a consumer choosing between two hard drives--Symantec wants to give the consumer the same capabilities in each product so the consumer can choose based on price. For more information, see page 3 of the Annual Report, under “Enable our customers to simplify their heterogeneous environments and reduce costs...”)

4. Symantec is growing its data loss prevention and “online backup” business. Symantec anticipates a lot of growth from its “online backup” business.

5. Symantec’s growth comes from both “organic innovation and acquisitions.” For example, Symantec is testing “reputation-based” analytics (i.e., should this software run on my computer?) and has an impressive R&D budget. (Note: Symantec's reputation-based analytics feature is live in Norton's 2010 products.)

After the informal presentation, Mr. Salem opened the meeting to questions. A shareholder made several comments about Proposal No. 3, which he opposed. He said that labor unions hated Mr. Robert Miller (who was singled out several times in the proposal) because he was a tough CEO. He said American corporations are being “denigrated” by activists.

Mr. Salem, like most corporate executives, is no fan of outside shareholder proposals. He could have taken the bait and criticized the proposal; instead, he showed admirable diplomatic skills. He indicated he would work with Symantec’s largest shareholders, and he was committed to shareholder success. I immediately realized Symantec had chosen a CEO with excellent PR skills, which is important for any service-oriented company.

Another shareholder, Tony Mazzapelle, questioned a large goodwill writedown. Mr. Salem acknowledged the unusually large writedown of approximately $7.4 billion and explained that at one point, the dislocation of the stock market had caused Symantec’s goodwill to be valued more than the corporation itself. The company recognized the issue and complied with SEC rules to resolve the matter. He also clarified that the large goodwill was the result of several acquisitions, not just one.

Mr. Mazzapelle then raised an issue dear to my heart, which is non-GAAP vs. GAAP accounting. Personally, I hate non-GAAP results. Even though it’s legal and common to use them, non-GAAP numbers allow accountants too much leeway. Here, for example, using non-GAAP numbers allowed Symantec to report operating income of approximately $1.88 billion for Fiscal Year 2009. During the same time period, however, using GAAP, Symantec reported an operating loss of approximately $6.5 billion. Slight difference, no?

Mr. Mazzapelle rightfully complained that publishing both sets of numbers was confusing, and he asked whether the company would continue to publish both sets of numbers. Mr. Salem responded that Symantec would be using both GAAP and non-GAAP methodologies in the future. He said if shareholders wanted a clear vision of the company’s finances, they need only to review Symantec’s cash flow, which is approximately $1.5 billion annually. His response left even a skeptic like me satisfied.

Another shareholder questioned Symantec’s marketing costs. Mr. Salem indicated the company was aware of the issue and was focused on growth (which naturally entails significant marketing costs).

Was Symantec gaining or losing market share against McAfee (MFE)? Mr. Salem said Symantec was gaining in the large enterprise segment, but not in the small business segment. He also said, the “quality of our products has never been better.”

I asked my usual question: what is Symantec’s competitive advantage in the marketplace? Mr. Salem said that Symantec’s software could run on almost any platform (Linux, etc.) and protected consumers “against the widest range of threats.”

Overall, I was very pleased with Mr. Salem’s demeanor, knowledge, and delivery. Prior to the meeting, I was concerned that after having a CEO as charismatic as Mr. Thompson, Symantec’s next CEO would have difficulty measuring up. My concerns were clearly misplaced.

As I mentioned earlier, this is my second year attending a Symantec annual meeting. Once again, Symantec ran its annual meeting professionally. It deserves kudos for delivering a pleasing shareholder experience. Its ability to run a great meeting is especially notable because its local competitor, McAfee, doesn’t seem to emphasize its annual meetings. For example, in recent years, McAfee (MFE) hasn’t bothered with an informal slide presentation. To make matters worse, when I last attended McAfee’s annual meeting, shareholder relations staff treated me like an intruder (I appeared to be the only non-employee shareholder there, which might have bothered them). Although McAfee's stock has done better than Symantec's recently, once Symantec digests its massive (and perhaps ill-timed) acquisitions, it may outperform McAfee. In the meantime, long-term, patient shareholders may want to consider buying Symantec stock.

Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of SYMC shares. If I do add shares, I expect to hold them for several years. Also, I provided a copy of this article to Symantec prior to publication. Consequently, I incorporated some minor changes in my sole discretion. Almost all the changes related to correcting numerical values, such as changing $7.7 billion to $7.4 billion (I originally wrote $7.7 billion because that's the number I heard the shareholder say).

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