"I cannot tell you everything I know, but what I can share with you...is deeply troubling." -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking about Iraq to the U.N. Security Council Shareholder resolutions almost never prod companies to take action. In fact, only about 17% of the time, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center--mainly because such resolutions are nonbinding. Still, tireless advocates of one cause or another rally to pass resolutions year after year, winning majorities, yet rarely getting any joy.
Suddenly, something nearly unheard of has happened: After 18 years of fighting change, Bristol-Myers Squibb has agreed to abandon "staggered" elections for its board of directors and put all members up for a vote every year, pending shareholder approval. It's the work of one tireless gadfly, 73-year-old Holocaust survivor Evelyn Davis. Of her victory, she says: "Whatever Evelyn wants, Evelyn gets. Sooner or later."
What made the company cave? Bristol-Myers spokes-man Robert Laverty says Davis demonstrated that support for the measure was large and growing. It started winning a majority six years ago, garnering 69% in 2002. "We're committed to the principles of corporate democracy," he says. "It's the responsible thing to do."
So, every once in a while, a shareholder--armed with nothing more than the patience of a saint--can actually win. Investors starved for excitement in Japan, take heart: A small company called Ox Information went public on Jan. 28 on a regional bourse for start-ups, opening 37% higher than its listing price of $1,580 a share. One week later, it was trading at $5,300.
Why such exuberance? The company's Alarm Control System software claims to calculate with 95% accuracy how likely a company is to go bankrupt. It compiles a score using eight measures--including a ratio of loans-to-monthly-sales, asset turnover, and ability to pay debts. Since 1990, Alarm Control has crunched the financial data of 95,000 companies. The result: Of 10,500 it ranked as risky, 10,000 have gone out of business.
It's now being used by 400 Japanese banks, brokerages, and others, and is expected to reach the U.S. by December. (The company predicts a profit increase of 66% this fiscal year, after last year's results of $850,000 on sales of $3.5 million.)
Ox Information founder Shoji Ito says his software can do what Moody's and Standard & Poor's do--but more quickly. "It takes them as long as two months to issue a report on a company," he says, while Alarm Control can rate a company in 20 minutes. With recession continuing to batter Japan, Ito is in the right business. You may have seen it during the NFL playoffs: two big-breasted women begin fighting about whether Miller Lite "tastes great" or is "less filling." They end up ripping each other's clothes off. A racier version airing on late-night TV has one suggesting they "make out." (And a bootleg on the Internet is even more salacious.) Debate over whether the ad debases women has even made it to CNN's Crossfire.
Miller Brewing's notorious "Catfight" ad has clearly become the most talked-about TV spot in years. And, BusinessWeek has learned, Miller is so pleased with the attention that it's now fast-tracking four similar shock ads to air in March. New York ad agency Ogilvy & Mather began shooting them in late January, according to industry execs.
Question is, how do you create more buzz than something Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield already has termed an "abomination," even by the low standards of beer commercials? Recruit celebs such as Pamela Lee, one source says. And how do you head off more criticism from those the ad offends? Possibly, several sources say, by making at least one of the ads from the women's point of view. Hey, Romeo. slipping your sweetheart some chocolates this Valentine's Day may leave you with a bitter aftertaste. That's because a civil war in Ivory Coast, the world's largest producer of cocoa, is making chocolate more expensive.
One-third of the African coastal nation's cocoa crop has been blocked from harvest and export by rebel fighting since a September coup. That has driven prices on New York and London markets to 17-year highs of $2,354 a metric ton--up 76% from a year ago and up nearly 350% from the December, 2000, price of $674. Nestle raised chocolate prices by up to 10% in mid-January, although the increase may not have been passed down to consumers yet. Lindt's chocolates have gone up 6% in the past few weeks as well.
Passersby at the decadent Maison du Chocolat on Paris' rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore will be relieved to see that its famous ganache is unchanged at $89 a kilo--at least until Valentine's Day.
Still want to melt a loved one's heart? You might consider roses. A Studebaker SUV? Trying to capitalize on the warm, fuzzy feelings baby boomers may have for a name whose glory days were in the Eisenhower era, independent carmaker Michael Kelly plans to introduce a 5,900-pound mega-SUV so macho he calls it an "extreme utility vehicle," or Studebaker XUV, at the Chicago Auto Show on Feb. 14-23.
Pooh-poohing the growing hostility to gas guzzlers, this minitank will get 13 miles per gallon in the city on its V-10 engine. The good news: Kelly says the boxy, Hummer-like vehicle won't roll like narrower SUVs.
The Studebaker name has survived fitfully since the 1960s, changing hands a few times and weathering a bankruptcy. Kelly, a Studebaker enthusiast, owned it a couple times and in 2001 took clear title. Last year, his plant in Villa Rica, Ga., turned out 150 Avanti cars modeled on the classic '63 Studebaker Avanti. With the XUV, he hopes to revive the Studebaker name.
At a base price of $75,000, and with just a dozen dealers lined up to hawk it, the XUV will be available in the fall--for "persons who want to be different," says Kelly. For a hint of the Studebaker lineage, check out the sliding rear roof: The '63 Studebaker Wagonaire had one just like it. Question is, how long will it survive this time? Johnson & Johnson's drug-coated stent may not be the megahit Wall Street was expecting. The stent, called Cypher, is a small metal device that props open arteries after angioplasty. Unlike others, this stent is coated with a drug to prevent arteries from reclogging--something that happens in 20% to 30% of patients.
But some on Wall Street are getting the jitters about a perceived delay in its U.S. launch. They had expected Food & Drug Administration approval by the start of 2003. That hasn't happened, so the stent is still not on the market. One reason: The FDA had raised questions about changes J&J made to the coating process. J&J spokesman David Swearingen says the company had always expected approval by April.
If Cypher doesn't come out soon, J&J will have less time to dominate the market before Boston Scientific launches a competitor, possibly by yearend. Most analysts expect Cypher to generate more than $1.5 billion in sales this year, but Raymond James & Associates analyst Michael Krensavage warns they could fall below $1 billion--because of the timing, plus doubts about whether J&J can meet demand. The reality, he says, "may not match the fantasy about this thing."