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[whitespace] John Chambers Share Bears

Can anything be more empowering than attending a yearly shareholders' meeting?

By Kelly Luker

WITH THE BRISK SNAP of winter in the air and holiday decorations settling into the public spaces, it must be that time of the year again. Large groups getting together, folks making merry and, invariably, other folks feeling nothing but pain and disappointment.

Yep, 'tis the seasonal joy of annual shareholder meetings. For anyone who's been throwing money at the stock market, the glossy presentation folders and thick brochures from corporations like Sun and Oracle find their way into the burgeoning stack of holiday catalogs that bounce through the mail slot in late fall.

Like their glossy Christmas counterparts, the year-end reports try mightily to glisten with good tidings, but they also go L.L. Bean and Lillian Vernon one better: an opportunity to watch our favorite mogul deliver the goodies in person.

Normally, I would skip these fiestas, of course, stock or no. But rumor has it that Cisco magnate John Chambers gives great speech, so it's off to the Internet server's annual wingding held mid-November at Great America's Paramount Theater.

Cisco's party planners weren't trying to be ironic, picking an amusement park as background to deliver the season's greetings after a year of stomach-lurching highs and lows in the stock market. But there we were, picking our way past roller-coaster terrors to join others in the theater. But most of the guests are not inside anxiously awaiting the star of the show. They are at the second most popular attraction at any shareholders' meeting--the eats.

The tables outside brim with fresh bagels, shmears, pastries and coffee. But Jackie and Vance Miller have seen better.

"Hewlett-Packard was incredible," reminisces Jackie. "Elegant chocolates--the works!"

The retired Portola Valley couple may not come to the shareholder meetings for the chow, but they know what they're talking about. They admit to going to "quite a few" of these gatherings. They've been doing this a long time, and sound a lot like Deadheads talking about Jerry Garcia's best shows.

"We've gone to Apple [stockholder meetings] for years," says Vance.

"The earliest were at Flint Auditorium," chimes in Jackie. "It was like a rock event."

The Millers fit a typical profile of today's turnout--retirees who like to get a visceral feel for who's handling their hard-earned dough.

"It's a way to see the management in action," says Vance.

And John Chambers knows how to deliver the action. Dressed impeccably, the CEO strides from one end of the stage to the other, proselytizing the vision of Cisco to his starstruck flock. Since the annual meeting is held about a week before analysts' predictions send Cisco stock skidding along on its belly, Chambers' vision still sparkles like holiday lights. A huge screen behind the stage reflects a close-up of Chambers to the far-flung audience, making the Millers' rock show comparisons even more eerily accurate.

At the end of the meeting, Chambers answers questions. In writing, of course. The Coyote Valley brouhaha? Well, sniffs the Cisco Cheese, he could have gotten a much better deal in North Carolina, but decided to stay here in his beloved community.

I file out of the extravaganza feeling ever so much better about my less-than-massive holdings of Cisco stock. But why? What, exactly, was the point of being at Great America today?

"It's a way for you to learn a little bit--a painfully little bit--about how a company you own an itty-bitty sliver of is run," explains Glenn Smith, a Los Gatos investment advisor.

It's also the place and time, if shareholders haven't mailed in their ballots yet, to vote for board of director elections or other corporate issues.

"I always throw my ballot out," admits one stockbroker friend who has gone to less than a half-dozen shareholder meetings in his career, "because the things we're voting for are proposed by the board of directors and management. If I have stock, then I have faith [in their decisions] and I'd always vote for it."

He gently points out that it's not exactly the folks like me that John Chambers will dial up for advice when he's sweatin' whether to grab another acquisition or not.

"The main influence the management has is when they talk to the analysts at the mutual funds or brokerage house," he says.

"You don't tend to have real sophisticated investors or institutional investors at stockholders' meetings, because they have access [to management] all the time."

So maybe the analysts don't have to write down their questions for the well-groomed Mr. Chambers, but the Millers and me, we don't care.

But we would appreciate it, John, if you'd call H-P for that marvelous chocolate recipe.

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From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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