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Sam's Club President and CEO Roz Brewer reacts to a crowd celebration during the Walmart shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., Friday, June 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)
Reality intrudes at by-the-script Walmart meeting
Retailing » Amid hoopla of big stock buyback plan, shareholders press their questions.
First Published Jun 07 2013 05:35 pm • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:33 pm

Fayetteville, Ark. • There were two Walmarts on display at the company’s shareholder meeting Friday, the one Walmart presented, and the one some investors and activists were complaining about.

Walmart, in what appeared to be an attempt to counter employee and union complaints about thin staffing and low wages, centered the meeting on extolling the value of its employees. That message was interspersed with the usual parade of celebrity and spectacle — Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, dancers and a giant puppet of a white elephant.

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Walmart in Utah

The world’s biggest retailer and country’s biggest private employer has more than 16,000 workers in the state.

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Although Walmart’s stock price remains close to an all-time high, its results in the most recent quarter missed analyst expectations. Sales at stores open at least a year, a key measure, declined in the United States for the first time since summer 2011, while costs in the international unit were higher than expected.

Its stock price got some help Friday from news that the company authorized a $15 billion stock buyback, replacing the 2011 authorization for a $15 billion buyback, of which about $712 million remained. Shares were up 1.2 percent.

As is common for Walmart at these meetings, executives barely made mention of recent controversies, including issues of employee staffing and the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers where Walmart was shown to be producing garments. In addition, there is still the continuing investigation into potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Mexico and other countries, after The New York Times reported last year that company officials at Walmart de Mexico bribed officials to ease expansion in that country, and executives at headquarters were told of the bribery and declined to take action.

But that did not mean those issues did not come up.

During the brief portion of the meeting where shareholders could present proposals, critiques were strong.

One presenter asked why Walmart had not joined European retailers in a pact to improve safety standards in Bangladesh.

"The last six months have seen two of the worst disasters in the entire history of the garment industry," said Kalpona Akter, a union activist in Bangladesh, referring to the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen fire. "Both occurred in buildings where Walmart goods were produced."

"Don’t you agree that the factories where Walmart products are made should be safe for the workers?" she said.

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Walmart says it did not have any production in the Rana Plaza factory at the time of the collapse.

A shareholder and employee, Janet Sparks, who works at a Walmart in Baker, La., pushed the company on its pay and scheduling policies.

"Times are tough for many Walmart associates, too. We are stretching our paychecks to pay our bills and support our families," said Sparks, a member of the union-affiliated employee group Our Walmart.

Referring to chief executive Michael T. Duke’s $20.7 million in 2012 pay, she said that given the low wages store employees receive, "with all due respect, I don’t think that’s right." There were cheers and applause from the crowd, a response that could be considered significant because the employees selected to attend the annual meeting are generally big Walmart supporters.

Other investors raised concerns about the financial and reputational fallout from the Mexico inquiry, and whether Walmart had a good handle on its supply chain given what occurred in Bangladesh.

As expected, none of the shareholders’ proposals passed. The founding Walton family owns more than 50 percent of shares, making it impossible to pass any measures without their support. Likewise, despite opposition from some large pension funds and proxy-advisory firms, all 14 directors up for re-election were reinstated. Walmart said it would release a detailed breakdown of the votes on Monday, which would signal how dissatisfied outside investors are with the company and board.

Yet the portion of the meeting where investors could speak amounted to about 15 minutes of an almost four-hour meeting.

The rest of it was devoted to Walmart’s version of its story.

The head of human resources was one of the first to speak, telling employees, "We’re here to celebrate each and every one of you." Later, another human-resources executive took the stage, along with William S. Simon, the chief executive of Walmart U.S., as they promoted two employees to assistant managers in front of the crowd of about 14,000.

Even the celebrities were on-message.

In one of the odder moments, Tom Cruise, looking dashing in a sharp suit and tie, took the stage not to entertain, but to rehash Walmart talking points about sustainability and promoting women. (Cruise, like the other celebrities, were not paid for their appearances.) "Walmart has served as a model for how business can address some of the biggest issues facing our world," Cruise said.

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