WILMINGTON, Del. -- When the chairman of General Motors Corp. muzzled a nun, any shareholder's hopes that GM might bend its new rules to limit their speaking time at its annual meeting surely began to melt away.
When he did it again, all hopes must have vanished.
"Again, sister, your minute is up," said the chairman, John Smale, in his growling baritone.
Like basketball shot clocks, two digital signs, in glaring red, ticked off the seconds racked up by each outspoken shareholder. Each was held to a total of 10 minutes, in 1- or 3-minute increments.
Those who overshot found themselves squawking into a dead microphone, as Mr. Smale briskly summoned the next speaker. Control of the mikes gave Mr. Smale clear victory yesterday in what became a grudge match against a tag team comprising three belligerent, loquacious shareholders.
"I'm not done!" hollered one of the trio, George Sitka of Bristol, Conn., as his 10 minutes elapsed.
"Well," said Mr. Smale, in a tone worthy of Dirty Harry, "yes, you are."
Closely watched by other companies, GM is trying to discipline its historically raucous shareholder meetings, an often flammable blend of business forum, town meeting and cage-match wrestling.
In addition to limiting speaking and keeping the entire meeting to two and a half hours, GM offered no plant tour to shareholders as it has in the past, and did not even display its vehicles in the Holiday Inn ballroom.
GM's meetings are generally held each year in different cities where the company has assembly plants.
"We're moving in the right direction," Harry Pearce, a GM executive vice president, said after the meeting. "This is a very important part of what corporate governance ought to be in the future."
Mr. Pearce said GM spent only $150,000 on the meeting this year, compared with $1.2 million in 1994. But turnout this year, at 137 people, was the lowest since at least 1948.
Despite the lower attendance, Mr. Pearce insisted that the new forum allowed GM to hear from more shareholders.
"We can't allow two or three people to dominate the meeting," he said. He said GM hoped to emphasize less formal regional
meetings with investors. It intends to hold 12 such meetings this year.
At the meeting, executives were peppered with queries on such matters as how GM was protecting shareholders from the Ebola virus, and whether Jack Kevorkian was damaging the image of the industry by helping people kill themselves in a van. Mr. Sitka requested the resignations of Mr. Smale and John Smith Jr., GM's president and chief executive, as he had last year.
Nevertheless, a few interesting details emerged.
In a speech to shareholders, Mr. Smith said GM made a contribution of $1.5 billion to its U.S. pension fund last week, bringing the total of contributions since the beginning of 1994 to $17.2 billion.
Based purely on those contributions, GM's unfinanced pension liability would be as low as $3 billion, but lower interest rates and higher pension costs have raised it above that level.
After the meeting, Mr. Smith also said that GM had for the first time reduced its forecast for industrywide sales in 1995 to 15.3 million cars and light and heavy trucks, down from 15.6 million. Ford and Chrysler had already cut their much more optimistic estimates.