Make your money talk

Individual shareholders are having their say in corporate management

Barbara Talley has always been a political activist, missing the mayoral candidacy a year ago by 97 votes in her hometown of Southfield, Michigan. But while she has invested in the stock market for over 25 years, Talley never gave a second thought about shareholder activism. At least not until recently, when she and 39 other African American women boarded a Detroit bus en route to Sara Lee Corp.’s annual shareholders meeting.

As with many shareholders, Talley always voted by proxy. “I consider myself an astute investor. Still, this was my first time ever attending a shareholders meeting,” says Talley, who owns mutual funds and shares in several companies, including Sara Lee and Chrysler.

Together, the group of women own 25,000 shares of Sara Lee common stock, a company that delivers big brand names such as Coach bags, L’eggs pantyhose, Playtex bras, Champion sports equipment, Hanes underwear, Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park franks. “The idea was to expose these shareholders to the benefits of being a partial owner of a company,” says Gail Perry-Mason, the trip’s organizer and vice president of investments at First of Michigan. “Their votes needed to be counted, their faces seen and their voices heard.”

These sister investors, who turned heads at the gathering of 5,000-mostly white-investors represent a growing number of African Americans seeking to create wealth in the stock market. How to win votes and influence board members is a lesson in shareholder activism applied for years by religious groups, labor unions and investor organizations. Having drawn a great deal of media attention, Perry-Mason’s excursion has set the stage for other minority groups such as the National Association of Securities Professionals to encourage other brokers to do the same thing with their clients.

“Next year, I plan to take three busloads to Sara Lee’s shareholders meeting. I’m also considering other companies my clients invest in, such as PepsiCo,” says Perry-Mason. “I feel very strongly about my clients having a voice in the businesses they have a significant stake in as investors [and consumers].”

Publicly held companies are required by the Securities and Exchange Commission to hold annual meetings attended by shareholders, company executives, board of directors and other interested parties. During this open forum, the CEO delivers his message on the company’s direction and shareholders receive an annual report, vote on issues and voice their concerns.

Several people debated whether Vernon Jordan should remain on Sara Lee’s 17-member board (in light of the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal). Talley was among those to come to Jordan’s defense, speaking before the board and the entire group of shareholders.

Prior to the meeting she contacted the office of John Bryant, the board’s chairman. “I told them that I wanted to learn more about Sara Lee’s commitment to diversity in terms of African Americans in management and their vendor supply program. I also wanted to know how much of their sales were derived from African Americans. It was important to me to see the direct correlation between the number of dollars we spend

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