It happens every spring: the first robin appears, baseball players return to the diamond and Evelyn Y. Davis heckles corporate honchos at annual shareholders’ meetings across the country.
She has exasperated Chrysler Corp.'s Lee A. Iacocca with unsought diet advice. Her diatribes helped persuade Citicorp officials to limit shareholder questions to three minutes each. She once gave May Department Stores Co. Chairman David C. Farrell a $1,600 check and the warning: “David, please make sure your man is on time when he comes to hang my drapes. I’m a busy woman.”
Several years ago, she nominated soft-porn actress Koo Stark--then romantically linked with Britain’s Prince Andrew--to ITT Corp.'s board of directors to give the communications conglomerate “some much-needed influence with the British royal family.”
Since 1959 when she first stood--"shaking like a leaf"--to ask a question at an IBM Corp. shareholders meeting, the 60-year-old diminutive redhead with the abrasive high-pitched voice has been questioning, needling, cajoling, cursing and irritating corporate America’s top guns in front of hundreds of other stockholders at about 60 meetings a year.
Moreover, the executives listen. They don’t like it, but they listen because Evelyn Y. Davis has clout.
How much clout?
Well, for example, she got General Motors Corp., the nation’s largest industrial company, to agree last month to adopt an “anti-greenmail” policy she’d been pushing since 1986 when the auto maker paid $700 million to Texas businessman H. Ross Perot so he would leave GM’s board of directors.
Greenmail, a play on the term blackmail, is a company’s re-purchase of its own stock from a corporate takeover strategist or other unwanted stockholder at a price above the fair market rate.
Shareholder activists such as Davis complain that these payments are unfair and unnecessary expenditures made by executives more concerned with keeping their own jobs than increasing shareholders’ dividends.
“Sometimes it takes that type of person or that type of approach to get management’s attention,” said Ralph Whitworth, director of United Shareholders Assn., a Washington-based shareholders rights group.
“I think some of the things she has done have been constructive,” said Whitworth, whose own group has advocated proposals it says are intended to keep management honest and responsible.
“It’s unfortunate that management has been able to put in place the belief that anyone who gets up and asks a question at a meeting is a gadfly,” he said.
Davis doesn’t mind.
“A gadfly with a fortune,” she reminded in an emphatic voice, still heavy with the accent of her native Amsterdam. “You know this stuff has made me quite wealthy,” she said.
“But what I like too is this power that this gives me. The power--that’s really what life is all about. It’s all how you use it. It’s better than being a nonentity. I couldn’t stand being a nonentity.”
Davis, however, is not just another eccentric, comfortably fixed senior citizen with a few shares of stock and time on her hands.
She’s a millionaire a couple of times over, with small holdings in about 120 blue-chip companies ranging from the Big Three auto makers to IBM, CBS Inc. and USX Corp.
The seed money came from some securities left by her late father and settlements from two divorces.
“My stocks are my children,” said Davis, who is childless. “I sort of just fell into it.”