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Annual shareholder meetings become perfunctory exercises

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Thursday, May 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

What a dud last week's Consol Energy Inc.'s annual shareholder meeting turned out to be: short and uninspiring.

And that's the pattern of shareholder meetings nowadays, with the noble exception of Berkshire Hathaway's yearly spectacular in Omaha, where Warren Buffett and his vice chairman meet with 30,000 owners and answer questions for hours.

Typical meetings are over in 15 minutes.

It's the legal least a management can do: assemble their bosses (ha!) once a year in a hotel conference room to collect the votes — nearly all by proxy anyway — to re-elect themselves and their auditors.

This is an anti-climax and a missed opportunity.

Everybody in the seats of the crash-prone vehicle called capitalism ought to have more of a chance to talk to the drivers, especially when their company does something important. Producing food or medicine, say. Or cars or airplanes, or in this case, digging for coal and drilling for oil.

Shouldn't all that be worth talking shop about?

And this with the everyday owners? True, their votes don't amount to much against the millions of proxies recruited by Wall Street from mutual and pension funds, investment firms and bank trust departments.

But economic freedom needs the foot soldier. The little guy is a voter in national elections. Keep him interested.

Unhappily, like the beautiful annual reports of old, lively shareholder meetings aren't now in vogue. Escaping attention is.

Bureaucrats are in charge. Just give them the statutory requirements, please: certification that a quorum is “present” — actually a ghost assemblage of proxies by mail and internet — a pause for questions (rarely any). then seeya next year.

Consol Energy's meeting didn't even use a microphone. The CEO offered not the slightest speech on the state of business. He might have said something he shouldn't, which would have upset the lawyers and accountants in the front rows, all in practically identical navy and black suits. The few folks in back didn't ask one question, perhaps awed at how well-oiled it all seemed to go. Fifteen minutes might be an over-estimate.

What's called for is a new generation of Wilma Soss, Evelyn Y. Davis and especially the Gilbert brothers, “gadfly” shareholders all.

Lewis and John Gilbert of New York would stand up, call points of order, ask, criticize, nitpick and suggest from the opening gavel. And they snapped back if anyone tried to shush them. No awe there. They hinted that company planes were misued. They attacked stock options for diluting the holdings of others. And Lew Gilbert memorably made an issue of it when CEO pay shockingly topped $1 million. (What would be say now?) He'd surely expect a Consol answer to the Obama administration's “war on coal,” other than to sell coal mines. But the floor produced only silence last week.

Capitalism should put new life in the annual meeting.

Big Brother is its nemesis, not Little Investor.

Jack Markowitz is a columnist of Trib Total Media. Email

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