Apple's Jobs brushes aside backdating concerns

Some institutional shareholders castigate the CEO for his role in stock option scandal, but most praise him for making them richer.
Written by Tom Krazit, Contributor
CUPERTINO, Calif.--After presiding over a 50 percent rise in Apple's stock over the past year, CEO Steve Jobs can afford to shrug off shareholder questions about stock option backdating and environmental policies.

Jobs drew laughs from most shareholders as he sardonically responded to questions from representatives of the AFL-CIO and Greenpeace at the company's annual meeting of shareholders Thursday. Several proposals were submitted by shareholders, including one calling for an option-dating policy and another that would subject executive compensation to a shareholder vote.

All such proposals were rejected in preliminary voting.

Apple's board of directors has been under fire from corporate-governance organizations such as Institutional Shareholder Services over its defense of Jobs' actions concerning stock option backdating at Apple. A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation has charged two former Apple employees with improper conduct, but that investigation cleared the company, and the SEC has not charged Jobs with anything.

"Unless you think there's a conspiracy involving the SEC too, I don't know what to say," Jobs said in response to heated questioning from Brandon Reese, a representative of the AFL-CIO labor union and the sponsor of a shareholder proposal calling for shareholder oversight of executive compensation.

Reese asked Jobs if he would reimburse Apple for any gains he received from the backdated options. Apple has admitted that Jobs received two options packages that came with cherry-picked exercise dates, but he never exercised those options, exchanging them for a restricted stock award in 2003.

"I get 50 cents a year for showing up, and the other 50 cents is based on my performance."
--Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple

Jobs said the option grant he received in October 2001 was actually approved by the board in August 2001, when the stock price was lower. "I didn't ask the company to pay me back," he retorted, as several hundred attendees at Apple's corporate headquarters broke into laughter.

In response to questions about Fred Anderson, the former chief financial officer charged by the SEC who said Jobs was aware of the accounting implications of stock option backdating, Jobs read a quote given by the SEC's regional director implying that Anderson knew options were being backdated and should have done more himself to make sure the financial statements reflected the true expense of the stock option packages.

There's nothing wrong with backdating options, as long as the company records an expense, but that's something dozens of companies have failed to do.

A representative of the Teamsters Union asked to speak with Bill Campbell, the head of Apple's compensation committee, but was rebuffed by Jobs. Jobs makes only $1 a year in salary, but hundreds of millions in stock awards made him the highest-paid CEO in the United States last year.

"I get 50 cents a year for showing up, and the other 50 cents is based on my performance," he joked. The Teamsters wanted Apple to be more transparent on how it links executive compensation to performance, but its proposal failed to pass. A similar proposal received preliminary approval from Hewlett-Packard's shareholders in March.

When pressed by the Teamsters, Jobs said, "If you feel so strongly about this, you should run for a position on our board of directors next year."

Environmentalists are a perennial presence at Apple shareholder meetings, calling on Jobs and the company to do more with computer recycling and the elimination of harmful chemicals from Apple's products. But representatives from Trillium Asset Management and the Educational Foundation of America withdrew their proposals asking Apple's board of directors to study ways of improving its environmental practices in light of Jobs' recent pledge to eliminate harmful chemicals by 2008.

Still, two Greenpeace representatives called on Jobs to do even more to make Apple the most environmentally friendly computer company on the planet. Somewhat annoyed, Jobs came out swinging, chastising Greenpeace for paying more attention to what companies promise than what they are actually doing.

"You rate people on what they say they are going to do. You should hire a few more engineers and scientists to open a dialogue with companies," since finding alternatives to harmful chemicals is really an engineering challenge to find materials that are safe and reliable, he said.

With the institutional shareholders cowed, Jobs took questions from individual shareholders about Apple's product plans. While not revealing much--as usual--Jobs provided a little grist for the Apple rumor mill.

The iPhone is on track for an introduction "next month," Jobs said. He pulled his own version out of his pocket to show the audience, saying he was excited about the possibilities but noting "we have a lot to learn about the cell phone market."

One inquiry about renting movies through the iTunes Store and Apple TV drew a smile and a cryptic response from the CEO: "One never knows." Similarly, residents of Vancouver, British Columbia, might be near the head of the line of those waiting for Apple retail stores to open in their hometowns, according to Ron Johnson, senior vice president of retail.

Users of Apple's .Mac Internet service, which has languished as Apple has concentrated on the iPhone, Macs and iPods, should see an improved service by this time next year, Jobs said. "We agree with you that we have not achieved our full potential" when it comes to .Mac, he said.

Jobs accepted responsibility for the decision to delay Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X. The company pushed Leopard's introduction out to October from earlier expectations of a debut this spring, citing a need to move developers from the Leopard project to make sure that the iPhone is released on time.

One shareholder asked if Apple needs to hire more developers to prevent a delay from happening again, especially since Apple's bank account has swelled from its financial performance of late. And with that, Jobs swung for the fences.

"I wish developing great products was as easy as writing a check. If that was the case, Microsoft would have great products."

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