After an hour of numbers, charts, slides and speeches, one shareholder at Legg Mason Inc.'s annual meeting yesterday finally asked Chairman Raymond A. Mason to get to the point.
"When are we going to raise the dividend?" Mr. Mason jumped in, anticipating the question.
The company's board of directors provided its answer a few hours later by announcing a 10 percent increase in the Baltimore investment firm's quarterly dividend, to 11 cents a share from 10 cents.
The new dividend will be paid Oct. 17 to shareholders of record on Sept. 22. With almost 12.4 million shares outstanding, the dividend rise means an extra $124,000 in quarterly payments, to a total of nearly $1.4 million.
The increase came despite a rough couple of quarters for the brokerage and investment banking firm. The company last week reported a 23 percent earnings decline in its fiscal first quarter, which ended June 30. That followed a 19 percent earnings drop in the previous quarter.
But fiscal 1994 was still Legg Mason's best ever, and Mr. Mason, who is also president and chief executive officer, preferred to focus on the long term.
The company's goal, he told shareholders meeting at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, has been to grow steadily, rather than ride an earnings roller coaster like most other securities firms.
"We have continued to try to grow the business the way we did five or 10 or 15 years ago," Mr. Mason said.
That has meant an 11.4 percent average annual growth in the company's offices in the last decade; a 19.8 percent annual increase in revenues; and net income that has risen a compounded annual rate of 21.5 percent a year.
As for the last few slow periods, a result of the rocky performance of the stock and bond markets, Mr. Mason refused to promise too much.
"I'd love to be able to predict what the year is going to do, but that's impossible," he said. "You tell me what rates are going to do and I've got a much better shot at it.
"We have emerged from each of these cycles much stronger than we go into them," Mr. Mason added. "It's just something that happens in the business. We don't look forward to it; seldom do we anticipate it."
One thing Mr. Mason did promise shareholders was continued growth. In particular, the company plans to open more offices this year in Georgia and Florida, he said.