NEW YORK — Age was an issue at Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.’s annual meeting here Thursday.
A day after reporting stellar first-quarter results, the company conducted its 11th annual meeting at the St. Regis Hotel, with chairman and chief executive officer Ralph Lauren striving to make his presentation anything but formulaic while having his patience tested by some of the usual shareholders.
Harry Korba, an individual shareholder, and Philip Berman, a portfolio manager, took turns asking a wide range of questions. Korba, who opened the Q&A session with one about where the meetings for the board are held, prefaced his remarks by noting that Lauren is 68 years old.
The designer retorted good-naturedly, “Do you have to mention my age all the time?” That comment drew some laughs from the crowd of roughly 100 attendees, about 30 of whom were connected with the company, including Jerry Lauren, Jackwyn Nemerov, Buffy Birrittella, Wayne Meichner, Scott Bowman and Bette-Ann Gwathmey.
The age question was also directed, although more subtly, at Roger Farah, Polo’s 55-year-old president and chief operating officer. However, Berman’s query about when Farah, who is also on the boards of Aetna Inc. and Progressive Corp., is “planning to retire” didn’t elicit a response. Lauren told the portfolio manager, “He’s one of the most talented in our industry and we’re lucky to have him.”
Lauren thanked Farah for his contributions to the company, saying how his talent and knowledge have helped position the company to grow both here and abroad.
The 45-minute meeting began shortly after 9:30 a.m. with security extra tight this year. Guests were asked to check briefcases, and signs were posted stating electronic equipment such as cameras and tape recorders were not allowed in the meeting room.
The chairman, wearing a black suit and looking svelte and well rested, returned this week from a monthlong vacation. “There is a continuity [at Polo in its] spirit and direction,” he said. “In this challenging economy, we have handled ourselves very well. We have a very well-equipped team, with great talent, great management and great design,” Lauren added.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t tell you what next year will be like….My money is here, I keep it here. I hope to see you next year,” Lauren said, concluding the formal part of his presentation.
Berman, the portfolio manager, questioned the quality and discounting of American Living at J.C. Penney, suggesting it might have been a better program with the retailer’s former chairman and ceo, Allen Questrom, at Penney’s helm, rather than current chairman and ceo Myron “Mike” Ullman 3rd.
Lauren firmly retorted, “American Living is a terrific line. We’re proud of it. J.C. Penney is a great company. J.C. Penney needs product that we can make. Anytime you have new product, you [need time to] learn. This is a tough economy all over the place. I’ve done a lot of shopping and walking all these stores.”
Berman pushed again about J.C. Penney on additional issues, such as how much American Living product would be showcased at the retailer’s upcoming Manhattan location.
“I’m not sure why you keep referring to J.C. Penney continuously,” the ceo said. “The economy is challenging right now. It will be good again….We work with great companies, great retailers. I’m not here to defend anybody. There’s nothing to defend. We focus on our business. We’ve had great success. It’s been a challenging year. Most are not doing well. We’re doing amazingly well.”
Berman also asked about the bundling of candy from Lauren’s daughter Dylan Lauren’s store, Dylan’s Candy Bar, with Polo fragrances sold at Lord & Taylor and Sephora. Lauren said his daughter “runs her own company. She asks me to taste her candy occasionally. She sometimes asks me for advice, [but] she makes her own decisions….When she goes public, you can ask her all the questions.”
Korba queried why non-executive directors who can “afford it” get discounts to shop at the Polo stores but shareholders don’t. Lauren pointed out that the board members “work very hard for the company. They hold premier spots in their field, and they help the company. They well deserve [the discount] and they deserve a lot more than what they’re getting.”
Farah added that the suggestion to give shareholders a discount was a valid one and that the company would “look at it in the new year.”
On a more cordial note, shareholder David Finkle told attendees that he buys Polo products because they are durable and because he likes the service he gets at the stores. He noted that he was wearing Polo apparel, setting up Lauren’s final quip of the morning. ”I noticed when you came in that you looked very sharp,” the ceo said.