James P. Miller, Activists end Caterpillar meeting: They oppose sales of bulldozers to Israel, Chicago Tribune
Caterpillar Inc.s lightly attended shareholder meeting in St. Charles lasted barely an hour Wednesday, as company officials abruptly adjourned the otherwise low-key event as soon as a handful of activists opposed to Caterpillar?s sales of bulldozers to Israel jumped up and began chanting, Take responsibility and do the right thing.
The formal business portion of the meeting had already been concluded, and Caterpillar executives cut off the remainder of a question-and-answer session between stockholders and Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Owens.
Before the disruption, shareholders of the Peoria-based manufacturing giant voted down two proposals put forward by corporate governance advocates.
One of those measures sought to separate the chairman?s role from that of the CEO to avoid an excessive consolidation of power in one individual.
Caterpillar, like many major U.S. corporations, prefers a combined CEO-chairman post, arguing that format offers faster decision-making and other benefits.
A preliminary count, with 95 percent of stockholder votes tallied, showed 12.5 percent of stockholders in favor of severing the chairman?s job from the CEO post.
A second proposal, which would have obliged Caterpillar to change to an affirmative voting arrangement for directors, drew a 31 percent approval in preliminary voting. That proposed format boosts shareholders? voting power by letting them more easily reject unwanted director candidates who are running unopposed for election.
At the meeting, Owens reiterated that the company expects 2007 to be its fourth consecutive year of record earnings and said that despite weakness in sales of diesel truck engines and equipment for the U.S. housing industry, we see continued strength in most of the industries we serve around the globe.
The meeting was tightly scripted and conducted with unusually heavy security. The fewer than 150 stockholders who attended passed through metal detectors before entering the conference room. Cell phones were not allowed.
For the past several years, opponents of Israel?s treatment of Palestinians have made Caterpillar the target of a fiercely negative public-relations campaign regarding the company?s sale of bulldozers to Israel. The company should halt those sales, they contend, because Israel uses some of the bulldozers to demolish the homes of Palestinians.
Caterpillar has argued it has neither the right nor the means to police how buyers use its earthmovers and other heavy equipment.
On Wednesday, Owens again fielded questions on the subject, contending the company is conducting business in a responsible way and won?t change its policy, though it is mindful that the political conflict across the Middle East is causing distress to people in that region.
But when four or five protesters suddenly jumped up and began chanting, causi