Kara Swisher

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I Went to Yahoo’s Annual Meeting, and All I Got Were These Purple Balloons

For a meeting where very little happened, Yahoo CEO Terry Semel did yeoman’s work yesterday at the portal giant’s annual stockholders gathering at the Santa Clara, Calif., Convention Center.

yahoo logo

Despite the cheesy ballroom setting, festooned with Yahoo-themed purple balloons, scratchy audio and very unflattering lighting, he dug in before a small audience of perhaps a few hundred.

There, Semel tried to make his case for the impending resurgence of Yahoo, while listening patiently to a few shareholder gripes and reciting all that annual-meeting corporate mumbo-jumbo required at these meetings.

(You can see my video of the event at the bottom of this post.)

Along with Semel, Yahoo’s board of directors sat well-behaved in the front row, too, and there were a lot of top executives, probably all nervously waiting for some giant shareholder shoe to drop, given the company’s recent record of lackluster everything.

That runs the gamut from its languishing stock price to low morale and management turnover to slower growth and its losing the ad race with rival Google to, perhaps most flashily, the giant $71.7 million pay package for Semel that got a lot of attention last week.

“We’re all waiting for some big protest or something,” one of the many Yahoo PR people in attendance whispered to me, warily looking over the place.

Not to be, as it turned out.

The meeting basically went off without a hitch, as company proposals and board nominations were passed, although not by a resounding margin.

Some of the candidates for board seats got only 66% of shareholder votes, in fact, compared to last year when all board members were endorsed with 97% of the vote or more.

Shareholder proposals–centered on performance goals for executives and also on human rights–did not pass, although some got a very high approval vote.

The human-rights issues, which largely have to do with China, created some stir. One shareholder read a letter from the mother of one of the journalists imprisoned there after Yahoo turned over email information to authorities in that country.

Another shareholder said Yahoo worked “hand in glove” with the Chinese government and compared it to IBM’s previous cooperation with the Nazis and the South African apartheid government.


Still, the official part of the meeting was all over in about 47 minutes, after which Semel made a presentation to the audience about Yahoo’s customer focus, strength in display advertising (despite rival Google’s recent purchase of DoubleClick) and also the good performance of its owned-and-operated properties like Answers.

In his only real dig at Google, Semel noted, Yahoo “didn’t have to spend billions” to create such success, referring to Google’s recent multibillion spending spree for DoubleClick and YouTube.

And he mostly touted Yahoo’s ad search business as ready to yield better results in the wake of a recent overhaul called “Panama,” trying hard here not to make comparison to powerhouse Google.

After Semel, next-in-line and former CFO Sue Decker talked about Yahoo’s financial strength with lots of cash splashing around (she is impressive, by the way, and Yahoo should be trotting her out a lot more as a public face of the company).

Then, co-founder Jerry Yang made an earnest statement about the company’s commitment to human rights, condemning China’s actions and noting that Yahoo was working with the U.S. government and other companies on the issue.

Noting he and others at the company were “distressed” about the incidents of arrest involving Yahoo, he said, “This is an issue that will not go away for us.” No, it will not.

After Yahoo execs made their case, shareholders were allowed to ask as many questions as they wanted, which turned out to be about a half-dozen.

Human rights and executive-performance questions came up, as well as one about the possibility of Yahoo being acquired, but there were no fireworks as Semel handled the questions with a polite promise that all would improve.

Only a question from shareholder activist Eric Jackson got Semel testy. Jackson opened by asking Semel why he and the board did not apologize for the last three years of performance. Later, he asked why Semel seemed to say in his presentation that the No. 2 spot behind Google in search monetization and market share was a good one.

“I think you’re being cute,” shot back Semel, who said he was not happy with coming in second, although he had, in fact, noted it was a good spot compared to No. 3 Microsoft.

Later, another shareholder did ask about the threat from Microsoft, which has also built its own ad system. While Semel said he thought Yahoo could keep pace, I can tell you that everyone I talk to at the tech giant is aiming to grab the second slot from Yahoo, using its massive power and war chest of cash.

Still, in the end, Semel was adamant, saying Yahoo had all the “pieces to be successful.”

“I can’t wait to prove it,” he said.

Neither can Yahoo shareholders.

If you want to see a Webcast of the meeting, Yahoo promises it will be archived within 24 hours here. Other shareholder materials are also available if you click the link.

Until then, check out my little video of the event with longish interview with shareholder activist Jackson and another who is pushing for a human-rights panel at Yahoo. Also, there are balloons galore.

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.