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Meeting in the middle

Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, May 28, 2001

This is the tale of two annual meetings.

First — the Sears annual meeting, chaired by Alan Lacy in his debut as Sears' ceo. In fact, it was his first chairing of an annual meeting.

It was crisp, no nonsense but even-handed throughout the entire proceeding. Then came the time for shareholders' questions and comments. In years past, this part of the meeting was consumed by vitriol, sniping and emotional aggression against management from a large contingent of Sears retirees whose benefits had been adjusted downward in 1997. The total savings to Sears, management explained, would be $60 million a year over a 10-year period.

And so the line in the sand was drawn. And it continued over a number of years, with retirees offering cut-up Sears credit cards as the emotional symbol of their despair.

This year's meeting under Lacy's aegis seemed to offer an olive branch to the retirees. But the mood of the meeting was, if not a love fest, an event of conciliation, with the retirees offering kudos to Lacy.

Fast forward to Plano, TX, where the J. C. Penney Co. annual meeting took place in its headquarters, rather than a remote distribution center in Lenexa, KS, the site of last year's meeting, ostensibly to show shareholders the state-of-the-art facility. But in reality, it was designed to ensure as few shareholders as possible showed up.

But show up they did.

And the emotion at last year's meeting ran at high tide, with sobbing retirees chastising management, evoking the memory and principles of founder James Cash Penney and accusing management of violating these principles.

And management just let the venom spew forth, without a word of empathy.

Earlier this month, Penney's new ceo Allen Questrom, a veteran of high profile retailing extravaganzas, led the meeting.

Within moments of the question period, Questrom quickly recognized the emotional plus of letting the positives and negatives be heard. And the first one was the most voluble adversary from 2000. Soon he was countered by a number of pluses, some mid-grounders and an overall plus of Questrom's non-structured response to each and everyone. After an hour, the audience had a feel-good mood about it.

What a difference a year makes!!!

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