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Volume 21 No. 6
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Packers shareholders take stock of unique role

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Some 7,000 shareholders packed Lambeau Field for the annual meeting.
The Green Bay Packers shareholder services call center took an urgent request recently from a man wanting to transfer a single share to his grandson. Why so urgent? He was standing outside the delivery room, and he wanted to make sure that the Packers stamped the share with his yet-to-be-born grandson’s birthdate.

That passion is also evident at what is a singular event in sports: the Green Bay Packers’ shareholder meeting. On July 24, 7,000 Packers shareholders attended what at its core is a dry summation of business outcomes and plans (and this year many replays on the two video boards of Aaron Rodgers’ sensational pass in the Dallas playoff game). But even a mundane, monotone description of the audit, delivered in the middle of Lambeau Field, elicited applause from the shareholders, most adorned with Packers jerseys and some in cheese hats.

“Welcome to the most unique business meeting in the entire United States,” team President Mark Murphy said, opening the roughly two-hour affair.

Later he would add that “the only larger-attended shareholder meeting is [Warren Buffett’s] Berkshire Hathaway.”

President Mark Murphy made the rounds.
Director of Public Affairs Aaron Popkey.

The Packers, the only public team in the NFL and one of a handful in pro sports, first sold shares in 1923 when the team, on the verge of bankruptcy, sought community investors. It’s why the team has more than 40 directors rather than the standard half dozen or so for a typical public company; the club wanted to draw in as many local leaders as possible to stave off true elimination. Those directors meet several times a year, and their main perks are to travel once a year with the club to an away game and, if the team wins the Super Bowl, a ring.

Four other times the team has sold and issued stock, the most recent in 2011. The shares, which now total 361,000 according to an announcement at the meeting, cannot trade and there are no dividends. But those who snark that these are nothing more than trophy shares underestimate the ethos that the shareholders infuse in the team, which is run by a seven-person executive committee that reports to the investors.

“The organization, just our level of passion and appreciation for the fans, especially for the shareholders, it goes into everything we do every day,” said Toula Akladios, the head of shareholder services, who recounted the story of the pending grandfather. “You live that, you breathe that, you are that.”

When shareholders phone the call center, they often introduce themselves by saying, “I am an owner.”

The team first sought community investors in 1923 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.
On the day of the shareholder meeting, the parking lots at Lambeau open at 8 a.m. local time, three hours before the meeting, and within minutes fans are arriving and lining up. The stadium opens at 9. And, yes, there are tailgaters, some drinking Bloody Marys and who will offer them to those who ask.

“I am here to show my support for the team and organization,” said John Hall, a shareholder from North Fond du Lac, Wis., standing beside his mini-grill cooking brats. He has been coming for decades, but he had his complaints: Packers GM Ted Thompson is too dry in his annual presentation, and he wanted more perks like tours of the locker room or suites where, in his words, the bigwigs sit. Thompson is notorious at these meetings for saying nothing new, though he did crack a few jokes last week, which many regulars noted as a breakthrough.

A shareholder sitting in a folding chair in the parking lot before the meeting waved a reporter away, saying he couldn’t have his name reported because he was supposed to be at work. Many brought their small children.

While conventional wisdom is that most of the shareholders are from Wisconsin, only one-third are, Akladios said. The next highest number comes from neighboring Illinois, and Florida and California are in the top 10.

Akladios hears a lot from shareholders like Hall who want something more for their shares (they receive a pass to the meeting and access to buy exclusive shareholder merchandise). The team is barred legally from offering anything of value to the shareholders, even suite tours.

The call center will hear from shareholders who want to complain about football matters, and those often get passed to Aaron Popkey, director of public affairs. “I talk to a lot of shareholders,” he said, a wry smile creeping across his face.

At the end of the meeting Murphy stops to sign autographs on jerseys, footballs and meeting programs. The former Redskins safety is clearly a star on this day, and he expends a good 15 minutes before departing the field, talking to the fans, taking their Sharpies to scribble his name. One fan with a small dog who she somehow got into the venue handed the animal to him for a moment, almost as if he were going to sign it.

The meeting, he later told reporters, is “one of the best parts of my job.”

“The fact our fans, so many of our fans are shareholders, have an interest in the team,” he added, makes “them much stronger than fans of your typical NFL team.

“When I was with the Redskins I thought it was great, but it was nothing like this.”

When he told the shareholders that the NFL’s fan survey ranked the fan experience at Lambeau second in the league, and that Seattle had the top spot, boos cascaded down.

“Our fans are our owners. No one can match that,” Murphy said later. “I will say they are the best owners in the NFL.”