April 19, 2012 / 7:41 PM / 8 years ago

Investor gadfly Davis calls it quits ... for now

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street titans can rest a little easier this spring: Evelyn Davis, an investor gadfly whose tirades have brought turmoil to countless annual shareholder meetings, is taking a breather.

Shareholder Evelyn Y. Davis speaks during the Ford Motor Company annual shareholders meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, May 8, 2008. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

A thorn in the side of many a chief executive, Davis told Reuters on Wednesday that her age and the fallout from the Occupy Wall Street movement have convinced her to stick closer to her Washington, D.C. home this year.

She has already missed Citigroup’s annual meeting on Tuesday and will skip gatherings for Goldman Sachs, American Express Co. and other companies - despite having shareholder proposals up for vote at nine companies.

Davis also has halted production of her 47-year-old self-published newsletter “Highlights & Lowlights,” a $600-an-issue review of her corporate governance battles that regularly features numerous photos of a beaming Davis with bemused CEOs.

“I’m 82. I can’t do as much. It gets tiresome when you get older,” she said in a brief phone interview.

At Citigroup Inc’s meeting on Tuesday, Chairman Richard Parsons told the gathering “health” reasons prevented Davis’s attendance. Citigroup declined further comment.

In the interview, Davis said she was in reasonable health for her age.

For more than 40 years, Davis has seized the microphone during annual meetings to scold executives and directors on governance issues such as staggered board elections and excessive compensation.

She also monopolized comment periods sometimes trying the patience of other shareholders at meetings. Critics say her over-the-top style tarnishes the work of serious activists.

Davis has, on average, submitted proposals to about 20 companies a year. Goldman Sachs has long been one of her favorite targets and in 2010 she called for the resignation of CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Goldman did not return calls for comment.

Her recent successes were few. Only one Davis proposal received a majority of votes since 2006: a Bank of New York proposal for cumulative voting in board member elections. Five other proposals came close, with more than 40 percent approval.

“She gets a lot of press relative to her success,” said James Copland, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, which began tracking Fortune 200 proxy proposals last year.

That said, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Dow Jones, now owned by News Corp, and CarrAmerica Realty in 2003 cited Davis’s efforts as a reason they agreed to annual director elections, according to a 2003 USA Today article. Other Davis causes, such as limiting the time directors can serve, were eventually adopted by companies over time.

She certainly has received special treatment from companies, perhaps in effort to avoid confrontations with a senior citizen.

At one American Express annual meeting, then-CEO Harvey Golub hand-delivered Davis’s card to her. In 2003, Ford Motor Co’s then-CEO Bill Ford delivered a new Jaguar X-type sedan to Davis.

Davis said the Occupy Wall Street movement is one reason she is skipping 2012 meetings. The protesters “should have made a point and then left. They overstayed their welcome,” she said.

One Occupy Wall Street group has said it will target 36 shareholder meetings this year, including those of Wells Fargo & Co and General Electric, with protests and rallies.

Davis took a month-long break from shareholder meetings in 2006 after doctors advised her to curtail her travels. She expects to attend meetings in 2013, but did not say whether she would resume the newsletter.

Davis rejected talk of naming a gadfly successor.

“Nobody can take my spot,” she said.

Additional reporting by Chelsea Emery and David Henry; Editing by Walden Siew, Jennifer Merritt and Leslie Gevirtz

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