From the Ford Ranger pickup to a new electric SUV, the elation of the Ford GT’s Le Mans win and the Ford family’s frustration that their fortunes are tied to a sluggish stock, Ford executives ran the gamut of topics at the 2017 annual shareholders meeting.
And if that wasn’t enough, it was the first time the meeting was conducted virtually, meaning shareholders participated online to mixed early reviews. Shareholders criticized the fact they could not interact with senior leadership in person, complaining of bugs with the technology as they attempted to type out their questions, not knowing if some were being selectively ignored. Conversely, Executive Chairman Bill Ford praised the new format, noting the meeting went longer than usual (75 minutes), with more shareholder participation from afar and a greater breadth of topics covered. There were promises of troubleshooting to improve it in the future, an indication this is the format the company will continue to use.
Ford CEO Mark Fields confirmed it will be based on the global platform; the company sells the pickup as a true body-on-frame truck in the rest of the world. Fields said he is looking forward to getting the compact pickup into the U.S. marketplace where there are many previous customers and Ranger fans.
Ford discontinued the Ranger to focus on the larger F-150, but the introduction of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon have reignited interest in smaller trucks. Ford has admitted its sales slide is in part due to the fact it is not a player in this part of the market. The Ranger will be built at the Michigan Assembly Plant which will add the Ford Bronco small SUV in 2020.
At the other end of the spectrum, Fields repeated the company’s commitment to electrification as it is spending $4.5 billion on 13 new global vehicles over the next five years. That includes a fully battery powered vehicle that will have a range of more than 300 miles on a single charge to compete against Tesla and the Chevrolet Bolt. And while Ford’s only pure EV now is a car, the Focus Electric, the future vehicle will be a small SUV, Fields said. The move puts the future technology into a vehicle in the hottest segment of the market.
On the product side, shareholders wanted to know if the new Ranger returning to the U.S. market in 2019 will sit on a new platform and whether it will be truck-based or car-based.
Ford is also working on autonomous vehicles with the first to be on the road in 2021. In the future, one of five new vehicles sold in the U.S. could be autonomous, Fields said.
Ford officials came into the meeting amid controversy. The Wall Street Journal revealed the board met for an extra day to hear a presentation from Fields clarifying his strategy for the company given the lackluster performance of Ford stock since Fields took the helm.
Fields is expanding Ford’s purview to be a mobility company, and that includes investment in ride-sharing, connectivity, autonomous driving, and more electrification. “The biggest strategic shift of our company is well underway,” he said.
The fear is the added focus takes the company’s eye off the fundamentals of carmaking which impacts the bottom line. Ford has forecast that pretax profit will fall to $9 billion this year, down from $10.4 billion in 2016. Sales and market share have also fallen. Fields defended the company’s performance, noting “2016 was the second best year ever.”
The languishing stock price is problematic for every shareholder from the Ford family to the smallest stakeholder. “We are as frustrated as you are by the stock price,” said Bill Ford. “The family cares a lot. Our net worth is tied up in this company. Of course we want it to go up.”
In terms of the business of the meeting, the 14 current board members were confirmed to continue for another year and senior leadership compensation was approved.
Once again, a proposal to eliminate Ford’s dual-class voting stock was defeated with 64.4 percent voting against. In addition to common stock, the Ford family has a special class of shares that give them supersized 16 votes per share for a cumulative 40 percent control of the voting power. Shareholders have tried for years to break that stranglehold with a proposal to eliminate the special shares. Each year it is voted down, but support for the idea has increased.
One shareholder said the need for all shares to be equal is even more important given the loss of transparency with a virtual meeting and the need to know if the company is following the right strategy. “The format today is all the more reason, a horrible retreat into a foxhole for the company,” said shareholder John Chevedden. He said the company is on a slippery slope towards hiding in Dearborn, “maybe in a basement. Nobody knows where this meeting is being held. Shareholders need more of a voice, not a diminished voice with management hiding in a basement somewhere.”
Another shareholder advocated a hybrid meeting where shareholders can choose to attend in person or log in to the webcast and submit their questions electronically.
Companies incorporated in Delaware have been allowed to conduct their annual shareholder meetings remotely since 2000. This is the first time Ford has taken advantage of that change in the law. In recent years, the number of attendees who traveled to Delaware has not been large, but many line up at the microphones for a chance to express their opinions which tend to be a mix of praise of criticism. In the past, Ford has held the meeting in other places and even went international one year, holding it in Windsor, Ontario.