McCormick's shareholder meeting draws a crowd — as always

About 900 McCormick & Co. investors packed into a Hunt Valley ballroom Wednesday to hear about the company's performance, applaud its stock price gains and see how it is marketing its spices, recipe mixes and other goods worldwide.

But mostly, they turned out for the goody bags.

The gifts, packed with McCormick products, are the big draw to the company's annual meeting. McCormick has handed them out to all comers for more than two decades.

"We always come for the bag," said Joyce Friedman of Pikesville, who figures she's been to about 20 of the events with her husband. "But we enjoy the meeting."

The size of the gathering — large for a shareholder meeting, but typical of McCormick's — stunned some first-timers. Charles Coleman, 87, lost track of his wife in the crush before the meeting began and stood by the doors afterward, red goody bag in hand, in hopes of catching sight of her.

"I didn't expect a crowd like this," said Coleman, a retired American Can Co. employee from Baltimore County. "It's certainly something."

CEO Alan D. Wilson kicked off the meeting by telling McCormick shareholders what they probably knew already: The stock is hovering near its recently set record high.

"On the date of last year's meeting, McCormick's stock closed at $54.24," he said. "Yesterday, the stock closed at $72.62."

He drew laughter when he noted that Apple shareholders aren't feeling quite so good. (The tech firm's stock is down about 30 percent over the same period.)

McCormick, based in Sparks with 9,500 employees worldwide, is working to expand its reach in both a geographic and product sense. Wilson's presentation underscored that.

He showed company ads that aired last year in Australia, France, Poland, India and the United Kingdom, along with several in the U.S. He talked about steak sauces, rice-and-spice mixes and the company's August deal to acquire a Chinese maker of bouillon. And he said McCormick expects emerging markets will account for a fifth of its sales by 2015.

McCormick's net income rose 9 percent in its 2012 fiscal year, which ended Nov. 30. The company produced the same growth rate with sales, which topped $4 billion — double what they were just a decade ago, Wilson noted. About half the sales growth last year came from recent acquisitions.

McCormick expects slower expansion this year, with sales increasing 3 percent to 5 percent. But that doesn't account for any gains through acquisitions — including its Chinese deal, which should close mid-year.

Wilson drew a handful of questions from shareholders:

Any plans for a stock split, or to combine the stock into one class? (Answers: Not yet, and no.)

How are you dealing with falling rice supplies in the U.S.? ("We're not having any trouble sourcing rice at this point, and we've learned how to deal with commodity volatility.")

Why don't you make hickory-flavored salt anymore? (McCormick's strategy is to replace products that aren't selling as well with newer ones, Wilson said. He suggested an applewood rub as a substitute.)

And one slightly more embarrassing question: What's the ratio between your salary and the company's average salary?

"That's actually a calculation that we have not done," said Wilson, whose $1 million salary last year was part of a compensation package valued at $9.5 million. "It's a pretty complicated calculation because we have employees all over the world in different markets. … Our compensation philosophy is to pay competitive wages at every level in whatever market that we work in."

Then came the goody bags, each with paella rice mix, steak sauce, sweet-and-smoky hibachi seasoning, a Mexican blend and several other products. Most were new last year.

Dottie Willard of Highlandtown, a Citigroup retiree, looked through her bag with interest.

"I'm not a good cook," she said, "but this will make me a better one."