Microsoft shareholders grumble at brief annual meet

BELLEVUE, Wash. Wed Nov 16, 2011 2:31am IST

Workers set up a Microsoft booth in preparation for the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada January 4, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

Workers set up a Microsoft booth in preparation for the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada January 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

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BELLEVUE, Wash. (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp shareholders filed out of the software giant's annual meeting grumbling that they did not get to ask more questions in their once-a-year opportunity to quiz Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer.

The gathering broke up with only a smattering of applause from 450 or so in attendance, while a handful of shareholders angrily shouted for more time to ask questions, after a strictly enforced 15 minutes.

"Why can't they answer questions for another hour?" said Bill Parker, a shareholder from Cashmere, Washington, a two-hour drive over the Cascade mountains.

"We drove through the snow to get here. He (Ballmer) is talking about tablets and phones as if it were a new thing. Apple's had these things for years. My granddaughters don't even know what Microsoft does. They should treat the owners better than they do."

Despite posting record profit of $23.1 billion last fiscal year, many shareholders are concerned about Microsoft's static share price, which has been stuck in the $20 to $30 range for more than a decade, and worry the company is losing ground to tech rivals Apple Inc and Google Inc.

At the meeting, Ballmer rejected a shareholder suggestion to break up the company, and laid out his often-stated plan to put Windows at the forefront of the company's push into new forms of computing such as tablets. He also highlighted the Xbox video game console as a game-changing consumer device.

In his only utterance, Gates defended the build-up of cash on Microsoft's balance sheet, now totaling more than $57 billion.

"You want to retain enough (cash) so the company has the strength to be able to take big risks even in the face of some economic uncertainty," said Gates. "I've always been a big believer in having a very strong balance sheet for the company."

He added that Microsoft's opportunity to be the best software company is "stronger today than it has ever been," and pointed to "upside" in the phone and tablet business.

ONCE A YEAR

Microsoft's annual meeting is the only time shareholders get to express their concerns directly to Gates, who retired as a day-to-day employee in 2008, and Ballmer.

"I don't know why guys who know their business as well as these guys do seem so hesitant to have a robust interaction with the owners of the company," said Larry Dohrs, from Seattle-based Newground Social Investment, a money manager that targets socially responsible and environmentally friendly investments for clients.

"Give that extra half hour and show us the self-confidence that other management teams show at their annual meeting," said Dohrs.

Microsoft is not alone among big companies in holding brief shareholder meetings, but competitors like Google and Apple typically allow shareholders half an hour or more to question executives.

Dohrs compared the meeting unfavorably to that of retailer Costco, from nearby Issaquah, Washington, which also holds its annual meeting at Bellevue's Meydenbauer Convention Center. Costco CEO James Sinegal likes to answer shareholder questions for many hours.

"In this same room, with a larger crowd, Jim Sinegal stands up there and will answer questions until every last question is responded to," said Dohrs. "From an investor point of view, what could give you a higher level of confidence in the management team than that ability to stand up and answer everything? This was close to the opposite."

Thushara Athukorala, a shareholder from Monterey, California, also bemoaned the lack of time allotted to questions.

"We should have at least two hours. Most shareholders probably have good things to say. We just want to feel good about it," said Athukorala.

"Fourteen minutes and 32 seconds and rush out?" he asked rhetorically, gesturing at the digital clock Microsoft erected by the corner of the stage.

He compared the meeting to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger's legendary all-day Q&A sessions at annual meetings for Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N), whose board Bill Gates sits on.

"Those two guys -- both over 80 -- answer for six hours, non-stop. They don't even take a (bathroom) break," said Athukorala. "No matter what the question is, they had an answer."

Despite the complaints, none of the grumbling shareholders are considering selling their Microsoft stakes.

"I'm a loyal Microsoft shareholder," said Athukorala, "I wouldn't be buying my first house if I didn't have Microsoft shares."

Parker, who says he has owned Microsoft shares from "day one" -- Microsoft went public in 1986 -- is not yet ready to sell his shares, which are in a college fund for his grandchildren.

"They keep sending me a dividend check," he said.

(Reporting by Bill Rigby; editing by John Wallace)

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