The Noisiest Shareholder Activist Takes a Break

by Christina Rexrode
Friday Jul 13, 2012
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Evelyn Y. Davis is the world’s most famous shareholder activist. She’s also the most outspoken, the most outrageous, the most intelligent, the most confident, the most charming.

Just ask her.

"There’s no other shareholder like me!" she declared in a recent interview. "There’s no other woman like me!"

For decades, Mrs. Davis has been buying stock in big companies for the primary reason, it seems, of attending their annual meetings and turning them into her personal stage.

Simultaneously brash and flirty, she heckles CEOs, remarks on their handsomeness, yells at other shareholders and proclaims that she knows more than anyone else in the room.

So there was something missing this year when Mrs. Davis didn’t show up at any company’s annual meeting. Not Bank of America. Not US Airways. Not Ford or Goldman Sachs or any of the dozens she usually attends.

Age has finally made her do what the most powerful CEOs in America couldn’t: Give it a rest.

"I’m not so young anymore," said Mrs. Davis, 82.

This is the first year she won’t publish "Highlights and Lowlights," the newsletter in which since 1965 she has reported on company meetings and how she was treated at them, which reporters gave her the most coverage and anything else on her mind.

She peddles it for $600 a copy, minimum two copies, to the same CEOs she harangues.

Never one to doubt her own grandeur, she is fond of introducing herself as queen of the corporate jungle. And the meetings this year, without her? "It must have been awfully dull," she said.

The CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Macy’s and Saks agreed that Mrs. Davis brings entertainment value to shareholder meetings - comments they made to The Associated Press after she called and asked them to.

"Annual meetings are never boring when Evelyn Davis is on the scene," JPMorgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, said in a statement.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who has often found himself on the receiving end of an Evelyn Y. Davis tongue-lashing, presided over a calmer, quicker meeting this spring.

"Our annual meeting this year was shorter with less drama," Blankfein said in a statement to the AP. "Without Evelyn, it just wasn’t the same."

Other shareholders have varying reactions to her antic. Some applaud, some laugh, others jeer. To some of them, Mrs. Davis is a champion of shareholder rights. To others, she’s annoying, even mean.

While some investors are scared to confront powerful executives, she is anything but. She asks pointed questions about their business decisions, and sometimes tells them they should resign in shame.

She advocates for lower CEO pay, term limits for board members and more disclosure on companies’ political spending - issues dear to most shareholder advocates.

Tact, however, is not her strong point.

She interrupts everyone, sitting at the front and yelling out questions that often have nothing to do with the topic being discussed. She tells other speakers they don’t know what they’re talking about. She implies that the best-looking male CEOs are in love with her.

"I have power over the most important men in the country," she said. "That’s pretty good if you can get it, right?"

Last month, she watched on TV as Dimon testified to Congress about an unexpected trading loss at JPMorgan. She called him afterward to tell him how gorgeous he had looked.

Days later, in an interview from her home in the Watergate complex in Washington, Mrs. Davis wondered out loud whether that conversation would make Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan jealous. She has told Moynihan, on more than one occasion, that he resembles her handsome first ex-husband. (She has four.)

"Oh, my God," Mrs. Davis said. "they’re going to have a fight there."

Spokesmen for Moynihan and Dimon declined comment.

Mrs. Davis’ bully pulpit, the annual shareholder meeting, is the one time of year when CEOs of public companies have to face their shareholders, answer their questions and listen to their complaints. Mrs. Davis’ critics - and there are many - say she makes a mockery of shareholder advocacy, grandstanding for attention more than talking about the issues. They get frustrated that she’s the only shareholder allowed to break the rules, not waiting her turn to speak or respecting time limits.

She was especially cheeky in her younger days. Like at the General Motors meeting in 1970, where she showed up in a bathing suit to make sure she wouldn’t get upstaged by Ralph Nader. (He didn’t show.) She wore hot pants to another meeting the next year, an ammunition bandolier to another.

At United Aircraft, she nominated Hank Aaron to the board. It was 1974, the day after he beat Babe Ruth’s home run record. Mrs. Davis said she doesn’t remember doing that: "I don’t know anything about baseball." The AP reported at the time that she did. (Aaron wasn’t elected.)

Michael Crosby, a Capuchin Franciscan priest in Milwaukee, has been running into Mrs. Davis at annual meetings for nearly four decades. He attends on behalf of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and usually speaks on companies’ human rights records and environmental practices. He thinks she brings up valid issues, but he’s unimpressed by her methods.

"She’d talk over, she’d talk out of place, and somehow the CEOs just let her do it, and they wouldn’t let anyone else do it," Crosby said. "And you always wonder, what kind of power does she have?"

Seymour Licht, a US Airways shareholder, memorably tangled with Mrs. Davis at a shareholder meeting a few years ago, when she was going on about how unjust it was for the company to schedule its meeting on the same day as another airline’s.

"I screamed at the top of my lungs, ’Shut this woman up,’ and I couldn’t get it to happen," said Licht, who himself is not exactly known for brevity at the annual meetings. "I don’t enjoy meeting her under those conditions, to be very blunt and straightforward."

Later in that meeting, Mrs. Davis asked CEO Doug Parker if he was afraid of her. "Just a little bit," he replied, according to published reports at the time.

A US Airways representative declined comment. "We wish Evelyn well," spokesman John McDonald said.

Mrs. Davis was born to a wealthy family in Amsterdam in 1929, two months before the stock market crash pitched the U.S. into the Great Depression.

She survived a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, a detail confirmed by the International Tracing Service, a respected archive of Nazi-era documents. Mrs. Davis moved to the Baltimore area after World War II with her father and began investing in the 1950s.

She is short and speaks loudly - or just shouts - in a heavy Dutch accent. Her hair and makeup are always in place, her suits impeccable. In a biography filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission when she was a panelist for a roundtable there on shareholder issues, she described herself as "a four times Divorcee with NO children."

If executives are exasperated by her theatrics, they have yet to put a muzzle on her. Her access to them is uncanny. She calls them directly and often, and she can be fierce when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Terry Lundgren, the CEO of Macy’s, said that Mrs. Davis always has "something interesting to say."

"The meetings tend to go longer when she’s there," Lundgren said. "But she’s actually had some subjects that have been of interest to our shareholders and that we’ve responded to."

In 2005, Macy’s decided to make its board members stand for re-election every year instead of every three years. The company noted at the time that Mrs. Davis had been submitting a proposal asking for just that since 1988, and had won majority support from other shareholders in the most recent years.

Goldman Sachs was a prominent topic in last year’s "Highlights and Lowlights," where Mrs. Davis blasted the bank for racking up legal and regulatory fines. Of Blankfein, she reported: "Near the end of the 2011 GS meeting we told Lloyd, ’You are NOT a bad looking guy.’ All of a sudden, he became VERY nice!!!!"

Steve Sadove, the CEO of Saks, is a "Highlights and Lowlights" reader. "She has good insights," he said. "You get a sense of various meetings, how they went."

Sadove didn’t get much play in last year’s edition. Mrs. Davis put Saks on the list of annual meetings that she found satisfactory.

The cover featured a picture of Mrs. Davis with auto executive Bill Ford, and a caption identifying him as "His Majesty King William Ford the Great."

A Ford spokesman, Jay Cooney, declined comment. "We appreciate her longstanding interest as a shareholder of the Ford Motor Company," he said.

Mrs. Davis is open to publishing "Highlights and Lowlights" again next year - "A grand finale, or whatever you call it." She hopes to return to the meeting circuit next year as well.

That is, if the earth doesn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012, as the Mayan calendar is said to have predicted. She’s inclined to think it might happen.

"Oh well," said Mrs. Davis. "There’s no use to worrying about things you can’t change."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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