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Rock the vote

1 June 2012 By Agnes T. Crane

Wal-Mart pulled out all the stops for its shareholder meeting on Friday. Justin Timberlake emceed at the event, which also doubled as a golden jubilee celebration. Lionel Richie had the arena-sized audience on its feet with “All Night Long” and Celine Dion closed down the party just in time for lunch. It’s a shame the mega-retailer’s organizational skills don’t extend to the basics, like providing more timely color on the controversial re-election of its board.

The 15 directors are under fire for their handling of a multi-year bribery scandal in Mexico that the New York Times brought to light in April. If the allegations prove to be true, the firm could face more serious charges as it may have violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Yet the only information Chairman Robson Walton gave about the outcome of the vote was that a majority of shareholders had voted to re-elect everyone on the board. But that was pretty much a foregone conclusion: the Walton family controls about half of the company’s 3.4 billion shares.

It’s how the rest of the investors voted that counts in this case. While they cannot force any changes on Wal-Mart, a strong protest vote would be hard to ignore. Now they have to wait till next week to find out the score.

That’s baffling. Many large firms manage to tot up the provisional yeas and nays by the end of the shareholders meeting. After all, most institutional and many smaller investors post or email their votes ahead of time.

A company that can pull off an arena-sized extravaganza worthy of a Super Bowl half-time show ought to be able to manage this small feat. A quick turnaround on the vote is a pretty simple practice that the likes of Exxon and JPMorgan, both of which faced some potentially embarrassing votes of their own, manage to pull off every year. Given the seriousness of the charges and the high-profile nature of the protest, Wal-Mart could have made a meaningful gesture to minority stakeholders by following suit. Then again, it’s the Waltons’ call. And there is little sign of that changing any time soon.


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