Caterpillar Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Owens told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting Wednesday that because the heavy-equipment giant has “strong economic winds at our back,” prospects for continued growth appear promising.
Owens clearly wanted to discuss the record earnings the Peoria-based company has recorded in each of the past two years because of a worldwide surge in commodity prices and the company’s strategy for coming years.
To his obvious frustration, however, with the exception of his prepared remarks the stockholder meeting held in downtown Chicago was devoted almost entirely to a discussion about geopolitics.
Although Caterpillar’s earthmoving equipment, mining trucks and other products are made for peaceful applications, opponents of Israel’s Palestinian policies have focused on the fact that Caterpillar sells bulldozers to Israel and that Israeli military forces use them to demolish Palestinian homes and property.
For more than two years, those opponents have made Caterpillar the focus of a high-profile public relations campaign.
As was the case at last year’s shareholder gathering, the street outside Wednesday’s meeting site was thronged with protesters holding signs that condemned Caterpillar. Counterprotesters, meanwhile, told passersby that the attacks on Caterpillar were “anti-Israel propaganda.”
The issue is a hot button only for a small minority: At last year’s meeting, 97 percent of shareholders voted down a proposal that called for the company to review its sale of bulldozers to the Israeli government. There was no similar proposal on this year’s agenda, but the topic dominated the meeting nonetheless.
More than a dozen people stepped to the microphone to call the company to task for selling equipment to Israel.
The first up was Craig Corrie, a Washington state resident whose daughter Rachel died in 2003 after being crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she sought to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home.
“Maybe you don’t want to choose sides,” Corrie argued quietly while Owens listened from the podium, but by selling the equipment to Israel, he said, “you’re choosing the side that uses these machines as a weapon.”
Before the meeting ended, many more people, including Rachel Corrie’s mother, took the floor to send the same message.
At one point, a representative from a pro-Israel group addressed the restless stockholders, saying, “We knew this meeting would be used as a platform for politics,” and urging the crowd to “get both sides of the story” on the issue.
Another stockholder complained that the meeting was being “hijacked” by people with a non-business agenda.
Caterpillar has argued it doesn’t have the right, or the means, to police how buyers use its bulldozers.
Owens emphasized at one point late in the meeting that “99.995 percent of our products are used for peaceful, constructive purposes.”
Shareholders voted down a number of corporate-governance proposals that management had opposed. Perhaps the most interesting vote involved a proposal that would require director nominees to receive a majority of votes to win their seats, rather than a simple plurality. Such measures, designed to make boards more accountable, have been proposed with increasing frequency in recent years.
The proposal was put forward at last year’s meeting, but 68 percent of shareholders voted against it. This year, the vote was dramatically closer, with 46 percent opposed and 42 percent in favor.