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June 16, 2008 3:54 PM

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The New Breed of Activist Shareholder

/*photo styles */ .photo-left { width:200px; float:left; margin:4px; } .photo-right { width:200px; float:right; margin:4px; } .caption { font-size:10px;padding:2px; color:#999999; } "Activist" is a kind of weird name pinned these days on millionaire investors willing to stir up trouble for...

"Activist" is a kind of weird name pinned these days on millionaire investors willing to stir up trouble for likewise fat-cat boards and ceo's. More than the corporate gadflies of yesteryear, the new brand of aggrieved shareholder has enough clout, cash and sometimes votes to cattle-prod cozy boards into action -- whether it be selling off a division or changing the makeup of the board itself.

Chico's FAS, which is being pressured by Spotlight Capital Management to switch up its board, is just the latest activist target. And then there's Carl Icahn, perennial corporate raider, who has been licking his chops over retailers with low stock prices and recently tried to unseat Jerry Yang as ceo of Yahoo.

Activist, though, is really a much better handle for the type who takes to the street with banners and chants than the sort who eagerly await an annual meeting. But activist is the name that seems to have stuck and, as I wrote about the impact of these assertive shareholders, I figured, maybe it's just as well.

Looking beyond the buckets of money to be made, shareholder activism is a genuine nod to that old oxymoron, "corporate democracy," and does, therefore, deserve a place in the grand tradition of open protest. Besides, activist shareholders are often asking the same basic question as those gathering by the thousands outside the White House: Why, if things are so bad, are the same people in charge?

Usually, that question isn't really answered, but in the corporate world, the asking tends to make often boring annual meetings less so. Absent an activist or an "American Idol" -- Wal-Mart had the newly minted pop star David Cook at its meeting this year -- most of the entertainment at the statutory annual gatherings comes from the quirky notions of corporate strategy from smaller shareholders.

Remember Evelyn Davis at the 2005 annual meeting where the deal to merge the Federated and May department store groups was sealed? She asked Terry Lundgren, now Macy's Inc.'s ceo, if he overpaid for May and quizzed him on the brand of jacket she was wearing (Lundgren passed the test, knowing immediately it was David Meister.)

John and Lewis Gilbert also made their mark. The brothers were said to attend more than 80 meetings a year, keeping corporate bigwigs on their toes.

And then there was Phillips-Van Heusen's 2003 annual meeting, where a man who identified himself as a shareholder and filmmaker expounded on the inadequacies of men's undershirts and, when it appeared he might reveal more than was strictly required in a corporate setting, two security guards approached. Nothing was revealed and nothing came of it. At least he had his say, which is, of course, what democracy promises.
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