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-- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --
By Jeffrey Goldfarb
NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Apple's shareholders got restless but not rowdy. At Wednesday's annual meeting, they backed a plan giving themselves more say on non-executive director appointments. But they couldn't muster enough votes to force the company to disclose succession plans despite its guarded approach to the health of guru boss Steve Jobs. Apple investors are still a little too fat and happy.
Jobs joined fellow tech pioneers for dinner with President Barack Obama last week but didn't turn up at the shareholder confab, only the second time in a decade he has missed it. Just a month ago, the Apple chief executive took an indefinite medical leave of absence and relinquished day-to-day management of the company to a deputy, Tim Cook. It was the third time Jobs stepped aside because of his health, and underscored the urgency of Apple's need for a more formal delegation of power at the top.
There are billions of reasons why shareholders might not have been roiled into action by the succession proposal put forward by a Florida-based union pension fund. As the S&P 500 index moved sideways over the last five years, Apple shares gained nearly five-fold, giving the company a market value of $316 billion. And Jobs has left the company churning on all cylinders. The second iteration of its wildly popular iPad is due out soon, with one analyst expecting Apple to hawk 30 million of its tablet devices this year.
This success, however, may have bred complacency. Instead of using this impressive stretch as an opportune moment to significantly improve Apple's governance, shareholders appear to have been cowed by the company's thin claim that the mystery shrouding its succession is somehow a competitive advantage. The company may be keeping order in its kingdom by spreading ample wealth. But for evidence of how Apple regards its subjects, they need look no further than the shareholder vote itself.
Most companies, even ones considered secretive like Goldman Sachs, disclose a preliminary tally of votes when the annual meeting begins. More than four hours after Apple's started, there was no word on just how many shareholders voted in favor of the succession plan.
-- Apple shareholders approved a measure requiring that unopposed candidates for the company's board receive at least a majority of votes to be appointed. They rejected a proposal that would have forced Apple to disclose a succession plan for Chief Executive Steve Jobs, who has been sidelined by illnesses.
Editing by Rob Cox and Martin Langfield