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Gwen Stefani, free coffee and Warren Buffett Jell-O Molds: some shareholder meetings really buck the trend toward virtual.

Sure, there's talk about shareholder meetings going virtual, how they're expensive and don't accomplish much in governance anyway, but there are a couple of corporations that relish the annual meeting. With over-the-top entertainment and swag bags, these companies aren't expected to relegate their shareholders to a Skype sit-down any time soon.

Some over-the-top shareholders meetings can cost millions, which begs the question, "Are they worth the time and money?"

"Great management and great communicators are able to lead without the excessive spending," says R. Brent Lang, vice president at Strategic Analysis Corporation, an independent capital markets research firm.

But lavish meetings make sense for some companies.

"With a market cap of $409 billion, Berkshire Hathaway can afford to show their many disciples what current leading initiatives their holdings are pioneering and gaining market share," Lang says. "The followers attend to hear the sage wisdom of decades of proven, simple investing principles that are often lost in today's frenetic trading world."

Here are companies bucking the virtual-only trend and continuing to thank and excite shareholders with off-the-hook annual meetings.

Walmart

The latest and greatest shareholder meeting was conducted by Walmart. The extended events include visits to the Walmart museum and tours of company facilities, but it's the main event that packed a reported 14,000 associates and shareholders into the Bud Walton Arena, in Fayetteville, Ark.

The meeting itself was just three hours, but managed to squeeze in musical performances, including rock star Gwen Stefani, all hosted by her country music beau Blake Shelton.

By the way, you need to be on-site to see the celebrities, who appear for free, but all have strong merchandising deals with the company.

Other portions of the meeting included videos of the year's successes, future plans and highlights of employees. There were also presentations made by the C-suite of the company, which includes leaders of Walmart, Sam's Club, and their newest division, e-commerce.

In between management presentations, Stefani and Shelton were joined by Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo and Rachel Platten for about 45 minutes of high-energy, high-production performances, in addition to the National Anthem and a woman suspended from the ceiling in a long white dress while store associates sang.

During the two hours and 15 minutes of business, proposals were also brought to the floor, including one from store associate Janie Grice from Marion, S.C., who said she is a part-time employee with two years experience who would love to have full-time hours.

"Too many of us have schedules and hours that change so frequently (as part-time associates), we can't plan our lives or line up a second job. Too many of us still can't pay our bills." Grice's proposal asked for a gender and ethnic breakdown of full-time employees compared to part-time and the same for management. She also asked for transparency in pay rates between male and female workers.

Walmart's general counsel, Jeff Gearhart, noted that 57% of associates promoted last year were women and 45% were people of color. He did not say whether the company would adopt Grice's or any other proposals made at the meeting. But the proposals were heard in front of 14,000 people and whoever revisits the video after the meeting.

Berkshire Hathaway

When people stream into Omaha, Neb., each May, most shareholders are expecting to hear from and hope to be heard by--or at least have a selfie with--Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and the undisputable mascot of the company.

Buffett is the star of the show and the shareholder event is so well attended that hotel and airfare rates skyrocket around the time of the gathering. People will line up in the wee hours of the morning to be one of the first to get into the exhibit hall to get first dibs on Berkshire sales and swag and hoping to see the man himself, according to reports. The hall also houses deep discounts for everything from popcorn to Ginsu knives.

Other events of the week include a 5K ("Invest in Yourself"), a night reserved for shareholders at one of Buffetts favorite steakhouses, a newspaper tossing competition against Buffett, and a shareholder picnic.

While it all may sound overwhelming, the company published a 30-page visitors' guide with an event schedule, Omaha tourist attractions and a map of the area, including the 5K course.

Starbucks

It's tough to hold a candle to the pep rallies that are the Walmart and Berkshire Hathaway experiences, but Starbucks brings star power (and caffeine) to their annual gathering.

This year Starbucks had singer Leon Bridges close out their meeting which one report described as a "tent revival," capping the tenure of CEO Howard Schultz and the passing of the mantle on to Kevin Johnson. In previous years the company has drawn other musicians including John Legend, Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow.

Cabela's reins it in

But it is possible the days of the week-long shareholder parties are on their way out. For example, Cabela's, the outdoor outfitter chain, used to go above and beyond during shareholder meetings with country music headliners such as Luke Bryan, swag, and homemade fudge. Since the announcement in 2015, however, that Bass Pro Shops would acquire the company, the meetings have come with less notice and considerably less fanfare.

In 2016, Cabela's board announced in November that their shareholder meeting would be at the company's headquarters in Sidney, Neb., the following month. The meeting was concluded in 10 minutes time. Board members did not take questions from shareholders.

Caption: 2017 Walmart Shareholders Meeting

Caption: Country music star Blake Shelton emceed the 2017 Walmart shareholders meeting.
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Title Annotation:THE STATE OF CORPORATE DEMOCRACY
Author:Hall, April
Publication:Directors & Boards
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jun 22, 2017
Words:934
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