Mere chairmen of the board cringe when Evelyn Y. Davis rises from her seat in a stockholders' meeting.
Fortune 500 founders sputter and snort at Davis' imperious impertinence. Upwardly mobile vice presidents are reduced to mere "flunkies" by her terrifying tongue. Shareholders shout her down and parliamentarians flutter their rulebooks finagling for a way to shut her up.
More than one unflappable executive has lost his cool before the Queen Bee of the Gadflies.
But not Israel Cohen. Bill Marriott Jr. and Vincent T. Burke of Riggs National Bank manage Davis with grace and humor, but Izzy Cohen's got her number.
At last Thursday's Giant Food annual meeting, the grandfatherly corner-grocer-turned-supermarketing-maven handled Davis as deftly as a butcher catering to a customer's complaint that the steak she ate last night had too much fat.
The dialogue began, as do all the annual meetings she attends, when Davis asserted her right to be the first stockholder to speak, grasped the microphone and introduced herself:
"I am Evelyn Y. Davis, editor of Highlights and Lowlights."
Before Davis could say much more, Cohen turned on the charm. The Giant chairman welcomed her by name and told shareholders that since annual meetings are a time to recap the year's events, he would give them a brief update on what Davis had been doing recently.
"I see you've bought a car, Evelyn, and I'm glad you bought an American car," Cohen said, recounting the tale of how Davis canceled her order for a new Chrysler after Chairman Lee Iacocca refused her request that he deliver it personally. She placed the first order for a new Mercury Topaz when Ford executives promised to put out a news release heralding the event.
Cohen pointed out that Davis' decision to buy her own car will cost senior vice president for operations Alvin Dobbins his annual day of hazardous duty pay earned for chauffeuring Davis to the Giant annual meeting. Three years ago, when Davis complained that it is difficult to get to the meeting at Giant's Jessup warehouse by public transportation, Cohen offered her a lift.
"And Evelyn, you've bought an apartment in the Watergate," Cohen continued, asking whether Davis would be comfortable living near all those Republicans.
"I am a Republican," she sniffed as Izzy got downright syrupy.
"Isn't that the same Geoffrey Beane outfit you wore to the presidential press conference, Evelyn?" he asked.
"You have excellent taste in clothing, Izzy," replied Davis before launching into her first interrogatory: What are you going to do to protect your customers against Tylenol-type poisonings?
"That's a very good question, not your usual style," replied Cohen. Without missing a beat, he introduced Giant's director of quality assurance, David Richman, who promised sealed bottles for drugs in capsules.
Soothed by Cohen's gentle prodding, Davis only screamed once during the entire meeting--to accuse another stockholder, who asked two questions, of hogging the microphone.
"Aw, shut up," came a voice from the audience, but Cohen and decorum prevailed.
Finally, as the session drew to an end, a stockholder stood to sing a paean to Giant's record profits, its soaring stock price, and the excellence of the company's management. "But what I most enjoy about being a Giant shareholder," he told Cohen, "is the hilarious comedy routine you and Mrs. Davis put on every year."
Before the laughter subsided, Davis was back at the microphone: "You could call it the Ev and Izzy Show," she suggested.
"A dog and pony show?" quipped Cohen.
If every corporate chairman were as adept at pleasing the customers as Cohen, it would do grave damage to Davis' reputation as the terror of the annual meeting circuit.
But instead of rapier wit, she often is attacked with the oratorical equivalent of nuclear weapons. The worst example of that overkill is the proposal presented by the Securities and Exchange Commission this week to change the rules of corporate annual meetings.
As Post reporter Warren Brown reported the day of the Giant meeting, the proposal would "quiet the buzz of corporate gadflies" like Davis by radically limiting their ability to bring up for a stockholder vote proposals for changes in company operations or policies. Stockholders would have to own at least $1,000 worth of stock to get a question on the ballot and companies would be allowed to adopt rules severely restricting annual meeting activities.
The rule changes under discussion could make it harder for social activists to present their issues at annual meetings. The SEC would declare that some social issues -- such as proposals to stop doing business with South Africa -- are out of bounds for stockholder meetings.
The proposals apparently have the backing of SEC Chairman John S. R. Shad and commissioner Barbara Thomas, but SEC member John Evans cautioned against restricting stockholder proposals, which he called "one of the trappings of corporate democracy.
"We have to be careful not to snuff out that little light," Evans warned when the issue was discussed at an SEC session on Thursday.
Though Davis' name did not come up during the SEC meeting, she insists the proposed restrictions are a direct slap at her. Davis is at least in part correct, though her contribution to shareholder self determination may be somewhat more modest than she suggests.
Egocentricities aside, the cause of corporate democracy is too vital to be sacrificed simply because chief executives are tired of being embarrassed by hecklers.