IBM Corp. is set to score a Wall Street version of a hat trick in South Carolina.
As it approaches its 108th birthday, the ever-evolving technology pioneer is bringing its shareholder meeting back to the Charleston region for the third time in the past 14 years.
The 2019 gathering will be held at the Charleston Area Convention Center, where investors once again will pick a slate of directors, vote on executive pay, express their opinions about the business and hurl a few questions at management.
The global Fortune 20 company known as Big Blue expects a turnout of at least several hundred based on past attendance trends.
North Charleston is among the few cities where the IBM road show has ventured to more than twice. The previous South Carolina meetings were held in 2005 and 2012, at the same venue.
“We look for locations that have a significant number of shareholders within a 50-mile radius of the location we choose,” IBM spokesman Doug Shelton said last week.
It’s a tried-and-true tradition for the Armonk, N.Y-based company that got it start in June 1911 as Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. It switched its name in 1924 to International Business Machines.
“Since 1961 we have moved our annual … meeting to a different location from the year before so that IBM is accessible to more of its shareholders,” Shelton said.
While it prides itself as an innovator, the company hasn't joined the small but growing number of firms that have moved their annual investor summits online. Former investment banker Gary Lutin of New York-based Lutin & Co. likes the idea of itinerant meetings because they give stockholders of all stripes from different places a rare opportunity to size up and question decision-makers in the flesh.
“I’d look at it as enlightened, fair practice," said Lutin, who's also chairman of the Shareholder Forum, which organizes workshops to help investors decide on corporate governance issues.
The last time IBM brought its directors and investors together in South Carolina, stockholders showed up from far and wide. One retired couple traveled to Charleston from Mobile, Ala., eager to hear what newly minted CEO Virginia "Ginni" Rometty was bringing to the table.
Rometty — a onetime IBM engineer and the tech giant's first female chief executive — laid out a plan for growth, including a bet on the future of “big data” as a major profit center. She stated that her goal was to “constantly reinvent" a company that by then was starting to move beyond hardware and personal computer sales. It was her first annual meeting as the top boss, and for the most the early reviews were glowing.
“I think IBM’s got a great future,” an optimistic shareholder told The Post and Courier that day.
Seven years on, Rometty is still in the corner office — she was paid $16.45 million in cash and stock last year — and has since added chairman to her business card. She'll be taking center stage again at the convention center next month.
But she could face a more skeptical audience in her encore performance in North Charleston. Among other complaints, longtime investors are frustrated that the stock price has under-performed the broader market while Rometty has been running the show.
It's undeniable that the IBM of 2019 is a different and smaller animal compared to the 2012 version, in almost every way. Sales have skidded almost 26 percent over the past seven years to about $79.6 billion in 2018, partly because the company jettisoned its PC division and other legacy businesses it has decided were no longer a strategic fit. Net income has dropped by nearly half to $8.7 billion over the same period. The company's global workforce has been pared by about 80,000 to about 351,000 employees.
The painful slog was enough to drive off legendary buy-and-hold investor Warren Buffett, who bought a big slug of IBM stock in 2011. He delivered a no-confidence vote by unloading most of it by early last year.
Rometty, who's known for her mastery of MBA buzzwords, will come to North Charleston with her sales hat on. She'll likely urge investors to hang in there, that the transformation plan she hinted at in the exact same room in 2012 is finally starting to show results, as IBM makes inroads in areas such as artificial intelligence and blockchain technology.
She's also sure to point out that 2018 was the first year Big Blue grew on the revenue side since 2011, when sales peaked at $107 billion.
She'll also be pitching "Chapter 2," her term for the next phase of the cloud-computing gold rush. Rometty sees big businesses shifting to a "hybrid" model that combines their own private data centers with the capacity they rent from off-site servers. IBM's role would be smack in the middle, providing the technical expertise and services for those high-tech infrastructure mergers.
That vision is driving Big Blue's planned buyout of Red Hat Inc. The $34 billion acquisition of the Raleigh-based company is said to be the biggest-ever acquisition in the software industry. But it's peanuts compared to the amount of money Rometty estimates is up for grabs.
"That's a $1 trillion market, 'Chapter 2,'" she told Fox Business News in late January. '"We will be number one in what the world calls hybrid cloud. That is 'Chapter 2' and we'll be number one."
Investors can decide for themselves when Rometty and IBM make their return engagement to the Lowcountry on April 30. The show starts at 10 a.m.