Robert Izzo is an executive at a plastics company in Connecticut. But he spends an increasing amount of his time scouring the balance sheets of other corporations, from General Electric Co. to America Online Inc.
After tucking in his baby each night, Izzo often stays up until 1 a.m. analyzing financial statements, surfing the Internet and e-schmoozing with strangers who share a powerful bond: the stock of U.S. companies.
For months while his wife and child slept, for example, Izzo raged through the night with fellow shareholders of Lycos Inc. about the merits of a merger with USA Networks Inc., a debate that helped persuade USA executives monitoring the chat to kill the deal last month.
"I never imagined in my life that I would be spending so much time studying other companies," Izzo admitted. "But now that I'm picking my own stocks, I want to make sure that I know what's going on inside these corporations, and I want to influence their decisions."
Small investors, once powerless against the institutions that used big blocks of stock to sway corporate decisions, are banding together to wield a newfound clout. Inspired by the Internet, they are digging up documents, pooling their findings and connecting with other investors to advance a new form of shareholder activism that is beginning to influence the way big business runs.
Small investors own half of the shares in U.S. publicly traded companies, and more of them are now turning up at annual meetings. They also are voting in record numbers on proxy statements -- those fat documents that flood mailboxes this time every year.
Perhaps the most dramatic example so far is a group of investors in United Companies Financial Corp. who swapped 6,000 posts on a popular Yahoo message board as they debated how to save the Baton Rouge, La.-based high-risk lender, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection March 1. Led by Martin Stoller, a professor of rhetoric at Northwestern University, they divvied up duties and collected so much information they secured a spot this month in federal bankruptcy court traditionally reserved for giant creditors -- a shareholder activism first.
"The Internet holds an almost unimaginable untapped power to change the way corporate governance has been done," Stoller gushed. "The Net has the power to replace the illusion of shareholder rights with the reality of it. It is a great democratizer."
The Internet is able to unite shareholders who once only met at annual meetings, when their gripes were brushed off as odd distractions. World Wide Web sites are proliferating that direct investors on the views of major shareholders, give them a forum to vent and guide them on how to express their own views. And grass-roots movements are springing from electronic chat rooms.
"If you have 10 people making two or three calls each, you'd be amazed what you can come back with," said Tim Grier, a stay-at-home dad in Ontario who credited an electronic information bonanza with his abandonment of Golden Books Family Entertainment Inc. before it plunged to penny stockdom.
"There are an army of little rebels out there who are poised to make a fantastic difference in corporate governance," said Sara Teslik, director of the Council of Institutional Investors, which oversees pensions with more than $1 trillion in assets. "We're just at the cusp of seeing the force individuals will become as they band together. Everybody focuses on institutions. What they're forgetting is we only own half the stock."
The new activism tracks an explosion in the number of people picking their own stocks, now that technology allows them to invest on their own easily and cheaply.
"I'm confident that I'm smarter than 70 percent of mutual fund managers," said Grier, who began investing in February after reading "One Up on Wall Street" by stock-picking legend Peter Lynch. "There's no reason why my money should be in the hands of a guy I can beat at chess regularly."
Household ownership of individual stocks rose almost 1 percent to about 45.2 percent last year. At Charles Schwab & Co., investment in individual stocks climbed from 45 percent to more than 50 percent -- outpacing the growth of mutual funds.
The visible impact, so far, has been on market volatility rather than activism, said John C. Wilcox, chief executive of Georgeson & Co., which advises corporations on winning shareholder approval. "It is too early to see the impact on activism, but it is a likely outcome."
The most telling measure is the new attention to proxies, which disclose such hot-button topics as executive pay and management's proposed slate of directors. Once, many investors threw these documents away. But now, people are voting on -- and passing -- proposals opposed by management that cover such issues as anti-takeover provisions and investments in South Africa and China.
So far this year, according to the Council of Institutional Investors, a record 35 proposals opposed by management were passed, compared with 32 for all of last year.
In April, for example, a proposal to block Chubb Corp.'s ability to install a poison pill, which staves off a hostile takeover, won 70 percent of the vote. "There's no way this would have happened without all those individual shareholders," Teslik said.
Alice Doherty Williams, a widow from Oakton who is just starting to invest for herself, recently came to lunch at the National Press Club in downtown Washington because she was interested in Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr.'s speech about online investing. She jotted down just one question: "How do I make a difference in these executive pay packages?"
The following week, Williams drove to Upstate New York for the Eastman Kodak Co. annual meeting and said she plans to begin attending meetings regularly. "I want to make a difference in the companies I invest in," she said. "I thought it would be fun to become one of the ladies with the big hats."
CAPTION: Martin Stoller led a group of investors who secured a spot in a federal bankruptcy court proceeding traditionally reserved for major creditors.