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The Shareholders’ Meeting

by James Vachowski

Most of the audience stood respectfully and applauded as the Chief Executive Officer walked briskly to the podium, pausing only briefly along the way to pump the hands of a few of his staunchest supporters. Although he flashed a confident grin for the cameras, it did not escape his notice that nearly a third of the board members stopped applauding early and found their seats rather quickly.

The spotlight sparkled off of the CEO’s silver hair as he waited patiently for the raucous applause to die down. After several half-heartedly modest attempts to quell the crowd by holding up his right hand, he gave up and accepted the rare moment of adoration. Standing erect behind the podium, stomach in and shoulders back, he was the epitome of perfect posture. When the applause finally did subside, he glanced at the teleprompter and began his speech.

“Members of the board. Distinguished guests. And fellow shareholders. Seven years have passed since I first stood before you. During that time, this great company of ours has been tested in ways that our founders could have never imagined. We’ve faced a hostile takeover attempt, and seen increased competition from emerging markets. However, our profit to earnings ratio clearly reflects that despite the trials we’ve faced, we’ve acted with steadfast purpose. Because of that, USI remains the global marketplace leader, a trend that will continue for many years to come!”

Most of the crowd rose to their feet, riding a wave of thunderous applause. After the show of approval, which lasted for nearly a minute, the audience took their seats and the CEO continued.

“The statements of some board members over the past quarter show a healthy debate about the future of USI. I welcome their views. Truly, diversity is one of our biggest strengths. However, it is vital that we present ourselves as a united corporate family if we are to continue to market ourselves as a world leader.”

Most of the audience again applauded fiercely. They kept their seats, with the majority nodding their heads in furious agreement. The live video coverage zoomed in on one particular board member, who chose to remain seated. His arms were crossed in a portrait of determined obstinacy, almost as if he could have somehow known that a camera would be watching him.

The CEO put on a grim face and wrinkled his brow. “Let us make no mistake: Our competition has gone global as well. The past seven years have brought threats to our brand’s market share from smaller, more nimble business units. If USI is to remain the world’s market leader, it is incumbent upon us to secure our business interests, as well as the interests of our strategic partners across the globe.”

There was another round of heartfelt but restrained applause which seemed to show support for the CEO as he echoed the shareholders’ concerns. The CEO sipped from a glass of water, a cue for the engineer manning the audio control board to subtly twist a volume knob. This gesture boosted the CEO’s microphone with a two percent increase in echo, adding an almost undetectable gravity that underscored his next words.

“It is also imperative that USI continue to take the lead in areas of corporate environmental concerns. This fiscal year, we will significantly increase research funding for our holdings in the energy sector.”

Heads in the audience turned to look at one another as the shareholders took in this announcement, but before they had a chance to react, the CEO went on.

“Currently, USI’s operating capital is vulnerable to monopolies and price-fixing schemes from our competitors. Being the first to develop renewable energy sources would protect us from hostile attempts to seize control of our market dominance.”

The heads of the shareholders nodded in understanding. The applause was heavy but muted, in appreciation of the grave dangers they faced.

The CEO nodded back at them and continued. “Another challenge facing USI is the rising cost of training a 21st-century workforce. Tough times deserve innovative solutions, and this is why I have submitted a recruiting proposal to the board members for their consideration. Our employees are truly our greatest resource.

“Under my plan, energetic young talents from foreign countries will have the opportunity to apply for work scholarships from USI. We will fund our employees’ future workforce training, and they will be able to reimburse us with a period of contracted employment.”

There was more applause and foot-stomping, but the CEO held up a hand so that he could continue. “I believe that this strategy will not only benefit USI by attracting the world’s top talent to us, it will discourage those potential applicants who do not meet our rigorous standards.”

The crowd, almost all of it now, rose to their feet in a thunderous ovation that lasted for several minutes. Board members slapped each other on the back heartily.

The CEO smiled. His white teeth glistened in the spotlight. Momentum was on his side, so he chose to end on a high note. He ran his hand along the top of the lectern, another signal to the sound engineer, indicating that he would be using the abridged version of his prepared remarks.

“A fine example of USI’s innovative cost-cutting measures this fiscal year has been the outsourcing of duties previously assigned to our Asset Protection division. With many security responsibilities now contracted out to our strategic partners, the brave members of our Asset Protection division are able to focus their resources on advancing our interests in the global marketplace.”

Again, the audience rose to their feet, all of them this time, in a resounding, protracted ovation out of sincere respect for the brave men and women in the Asset Protection division. Several reporters would later comment that none of the board members actually knew anyone who worked in that division, but that minor fact did not dampen their support.

The CEO paused to take a long, last, sweeping look across his audience. In that moment, all the troubles of the past few years quietly faded away. The allegations of insider trading, the dissatisfied shareholders, the speculation that he had secured his executive position through nepotism: they all seemed to disappear. Leadership means standing strong in the face of your critics, the CEO reminded himself. He took a deep breath and went for the big finish.

“When our customers think of USI, they think of a corporate leader. A leader in the field of ethical business practices; a leader in the area of employee benefits; but most importantly, a leader in the dividends paid to every shareholder. So tonight, I challenge you to do your part to embrace the interests of USI, and make them your own. What is best for USI is best for you, and for every shareholder!”

The audience members rose to their feet and cheered. The CEO did not try to wave them down, but instead shouted over the tumult: “Thank you! May God bless you, and may God Bless the United States, Incorporated!”

Copyright © 2012 by James Vachowski

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