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McCormick's Wilson faces shareholders

The Baltimore Sun

Now that former McCormick & Co. chief executive Robert J. Lawless has retired, there's a lot less pressure in running the annual meeting.

For one, he doesn't have to answer the tough questions.

Like when a shareholder asked at yesterday's meeting at the Baltimore Marriott Hunt Valley Inn why the spice company no longer automatically mails out its annual report, which each year carries the scent of one of its spices. This year it's Chinese five-spice.

"I'm not going near that one," Lawless quipped to the laughter of the crowd before turning to his successor, Alan Wilson.

Wilson explained to the crowd that the company sends annual reports only to shareholders who request them because the Securities and Exchange Commission is urging companies to steer shareholders to electronic versions on the Internet.

Lawless passed on the reins to Wilson in January. Yesterday was Wilson's first annual meeting in his new position as president and chief executive officer.

Lawless, who headed the company for 10 years, is nonexecutive chairman and still runs the annual meeting, but no longer runs day-to-day operations.

Yesterday, it was Wilson's job to lay out the achievements of the past year and talk about the direction of the company.

He told the crowd of about 900 how McCormick had been growing through acquisitions. In the past year it had purchased Billy Bee Honey products and Simply Asia/Thai Kitchen. The company is in the middle of the regulatory process to buy Lawry's seasonings.

Millions saved

Wilson talked about how the company had saved $35 million last year in a continuing restructuring. He talked about new products the company had introduced including expanded organic spice and Grill Mates lines, new slow cooker spices and steamers - bags with spices used to microwave vegetables, potatoes and seafood. Ten percent of last year's sales came from products developed in the past three years, Wilson said.

"Going forward your company is driven to perform and grow," Wilson said. "Over the past 10 years, with few exceptions, we have met or beaten expectations for performance. We have strategies in place to continue that pace."

Lawless conceded McCormick's stock price, $37.59 yesterday at the close on the New York Stock Exchange, is not as high as he would like and that the economy is making it harder to do business. People are eating less at restaurants, for instance, cutting into McCormick sales.

"As you know, it's been a tough market," Lawless said. " ... Food companies have been dealing with challenges that have added to the burden. We are working our way through those challenges. I feel very good about how we are positioned, the strategies we have in place and the team we have leading the effort."

Pleased by choice

Shareholders seemed happy with the direction of the company and were glad McCormick chose somebody from within the company to replace Lawless.

"It's nice knowing they keep people who know the company," said Max Wiener, 83, who worked in the real estate department of McCormick and has been a shareholder for 25 years.

McCormick's annual meetings are typically popular events that pack the house. Every seat was taken yesterday and many people had to stand along the wall. Many come for the goody bag of products given out at the end of each meeting.

This year's bag included a box of Thai Kitchen stir-fry rice noodles, Zatarain's beef-flavored rice, Old Bay low-sodium seasoning, Far East Sesame Ginger Blend from the gourmet collection, cinnamon chipotle rub from Grill Mates, beef stroganoff slow cooker seasoning and Grill Mates baja citrus marinade blend.

Many shareholders are retired and current employees who come for the camaraderie.

"I just like to come and rub elbows with other employees I used to work with," Wiener said.

Bob Kaizer, a spice technician at the company, said he takes off a half-day each year to attend the meeting.

"It's a good place to come back and see all the people you've worked with over the years," he said.

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