Harley-Davidson shareholders ask questions, but media kept out of annual meeting

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Leroy N. Soetoro

May 27, 2018, 3:11:52 PM5/27/18

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

“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 and
department chairman 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.

Ford Motor Co. allows coverage of its annual meeting via a webcast.
Polaris Industries, the Minnesota-based maker of Indian Motorcycles, says
it's allowed the press at shareholder events.

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

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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