Harley-Davidson Inc.’s decision to bar the press from its annual shareholder meeting Thursday has left some shareholders and business experts wondering why.
Wednesday, without much explanation, the company told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel it was not allowing any news media at the event at the Harley-Davidson Museum.
That hadn’t been an issue in previous years when the shareholders meeting was held on a Saturday and was attended by the media and hundreds of people wanting to hear from the company’s executives.
With big-screen videos playing and rock music thumping out of auditorium speakers, Harley would showcase its bikes and the company’s story.
The company even gave out free tickets to the museum, said shareholder David Livingston.
“Now it seems like they don’t want as many people there, or the media,” Livingston said, adding that he’s puzzled about why Harley moved the meeting to 3 p.m. Thursday.
Harley-Davidson spokesman Mike Pflughoeft said the meeting would only be a rehash of information already reported.
He said the meeting was scheduled for Thursday to coincide with Harley’s first “Bike Night” of the year at the museum.
“We also limited access to shareholders, as it is their meeting,” the company said in a statement Thursday.
Livingston, who didn’t attend, wondered whether Harley was worried about tough questions at a time when the company’s performance has lagged.
“CEO compensation? Plant closures? I don’t think they want confrontation,” he said.
There were questions about the planned closing of Harley’s Kansas City plant, and the opening of a plant in Thailand, according to shareholders who spoke to the Journal Sentinel after the meeting.
Greg Berne, a shareholder from Old Bridge, N.J., said he agreed with Harley’s decision to build motorcycles in Thailand for the overseas market.
“You have to do that, at this point, to get the bikes there and sell them correctly,” Berne said.
Shareholders also questioned the company’s financial performance and the path forward.
“They talked very positively and showed some really negative numbers,” said Larry Steffens from Hubertus.
“The top line is down, the bottom line is down, and margin percentages are off. They’re saying how well they will do in the future … but why can we believe that?” Steffens said.
The press has no legal right to get into a shareholders meeting, although in Wisconsin it would be unusual for a company to shut out reporters.
Some companies go as far as broadcasting their annual meeting on the internet so everybody gets the news at the same time.
Keeping the press out could be seen as a “red flag” that a company is hiding something, said Matteo Arena, an associate professor of finance at Marquette University.
“It just invites more media scrutiny after the meeting,” he said. “It’s not a best practice.”
The press hasn’t been barred from shareholder meetings held by some other large publicly traded companies, such as Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has sent business school students to the Berkshire Hathaway meeting held in Omaha, Neb.
“They didn’t get kicked out,” said Linda Yu, chairperson of the UW-Whitewater department of finance and business law.
There’s nothing “secretive” about these meetings, Yu said.
“Most of the time they’re not controversial unless there’s a major shareholder trying to gather some votes that go against management,” she added.
Still, some companies have barred the press from annual meetings, sometimes with no explanation.
Mark Basch, a freelance business journalist from Jacksonville, Fla., said it’s happened to him a couple of times in his 30 years in the media.
Once was in 2013, when he went to a special shareholders meeting of Atlantic Coast Financial Corp.
“The meeting was held to vote on a controversial buyout offer, which in fact was rejected by shareholders at the meeting, so perhaps company officials were afraid that things would get ugly,” Basch said.
Another time, he was barred from the annual meeting of Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., a popular chain of grocery stores in the Southeast.
“The company was expecting a protest from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which was pushing the company to purchase chickens only from suppliers that slaughter the animals humanely,” Basch said.
“A few months later, the former Winn-Dixie CEO apologized for barring me from the meeting and said it was wrong,” Basch added.
He recalled one company that ran a chain of steakhouse restaurants handing out coupons good for a free meal at its annual meetings.
“The shareholders loved that,” Basch said.
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