Corporate Gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis Dies at 89

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, November 7, 2018.

Evelyn Y. Davis, who spent more than 50 years haranguing American executives at shareholder meetings as she pushed companies to be more frugal and transparent, died on Sunday in Washington at 89.

Ms. Davis, who lived in Washington, spent much of each spring traveling to New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other cities to attend the annual meetings of numerous public companies in which she was an investor.

One of a handful of well-known corporate gadflies, she often cut a distinctive figure, appearing in costumes that she thought would underscore her messages to company leaders. For an American Broadcasting Company meeting in 1966, not long after the network’s campy series “Batman” had its premiere, she wore a Batman mask; for a meeting of U.S. Steel shareholders in 1968, she wore an aluminum dress.

Her comments regularly drew catcalls, laughter, groans or shouts — or some combination thereof — from ballrooms full of men in suits gathered to hear company presentations. Ms. Davis thrived on the attention, even when it was negative.

A shareholder at one Eastern Air Lines meeting in the 1970s grew so enraged, he pushed her into a flower pot. She once nominated Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and bête noire of the automobile industry, to be a director on the General Motors board — then left the room to do a television interview before she could cast a vote for him, returning only after the voting had ended. (Mr. Nader was not elected.)

For all her antics, Ms. Davis could be effective. Her relentless questions about why chief executives were paid as much as they were, whether companies had donated money to political groups overseas, and how board elections were carried out were credited with helping to advance stricter rules for corporate governance.

“She was definitely ahead of most of the rest of the world,” said Nell Minow, an advocate for retail investors as vice chairwoman of ValueEdge Advisors, which helps pension funds and other large shareholders influence public company decisions.

“The issues she raised were almost always excellent — they were well researched,” Ms. Minow added. But, she said, Ms. Davis’s personality sometimes got in the way. She could be flirty, flamboyant, and long-winded. At times, she talked so long or interrupted proceedings so often that she was escorted out of the room.

“It was kind of two steps forward, one step back with her,” Ms. Minow said. “It made it too easy to marginalize not just Evelyn herself but anyone who wanted to raise those issues.”

It was impossible to ignore Ms. Davis completely, however, and many chief executives adopted a strategy of placating her by giving her special attention, hoping she would agree not to show up at the next year’s meetings. Occasionally, she would agree.

Some executives courted her good favor by subscribing to her newsletter, “Highlights and Lowlights of Annual Meetings,” typically a slim booklet containing a jumble of her thoughts printed in italic font on thick, cream-colored paper, at $600 a copy. (She published it from 1965 to 2011.)

In December 2008, Ken Lewis, the chief executive of Bank of America, escorted Ms. Davis as his date to a black-tie dinner at which he received the Banker of the Year award from the newspaper American Banker.

 

 



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