National News

Evelyn Y. Davis, a Shareholder Scourge of CEOs, Dies at 89

Posted November 7, 2018 10:45 p.m. EST

Evelyn Y. Davis, who spent more than 50 years haranguing American executives at shareholder meetings as she pushed companies to be more frugal and transparent, died Sunday in Washington. She was 89.

A spokesman for her charitable foundation confirmed the death, at a hospital, but did not specify the cause.

Davis, who lived in Washington, spent much of each spring traveling to New York, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and other cities to attend the annual meetings of numerous public companies in which she was an investor.

One of a handful of well-known corporate gadflies, she often cut a distinctive figure, appearing in costumes that she thought would underscore her messages to company leaders. For an American Broadcasting Company meeting in 1966, not long after the network’s campy series “Batman” had its premiere, she wore a Batman mask; for a meeting of U.S. Steel shareholders in 1968, she wore an aluminum dress.

Her comments regularly drew catcalls, laughter, groans or shouts — or some combination thereof — from ballrooms full of men in suits gathered to hear company presentations.

Davis thrived on the attention, even when it was negative.

A shareholder at one Eastern Air Lines meeting in the 1970s grew so enraged, he pushed her into a flower pot. She once nominated Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and bête noire of the automobile industry, to be a director on the General Motors board — then left the room to do a television interview before she could cast a vote for him, returning only after the voting had ended. (Nader was not elected.)

For all her antics, Davis could be effective. Her relentless questions about why chief executives were paid as much as they were, whether companies had donated money to political groups overseas, and how board elections were carried out were credited with helping to advance stricter rules for corporate governance.

“She was definitely ahead of most of the rest of the world,” said Nell Minow, an advocate for retail investors as vice chairwoman of ValueEdge Advisors, which helps pension funds and other large shareholders influence public company decisions.

“The issues she raised were almost always excellent — they were well researched,” Minow added. But, she said, Davis’ personality sometimes got in the way. She could be flirty, flamboyant and long-winded. At times, she talked so long or interrupted proceedings so often that she was escorted out of the room.

“It was kind of two steps forward, one step back with her,” Minow said. “It made it too easy to marginalize not just Evelyn herself but anyone who wanted to raise those issues.”

It was impossible to ignore Davis completely, however, and many chief executives adopted a strategy of placating her by giving her special attention, hoping she would agree not to show up at the next year’s meetings. Occasionally, she would agree.

Some executives courted her good favor by subscribing to her newsletter, “Highlights and Lowlights of Annual Meetings,” typically a slim booklet containing a jumble of her thoughts printed in italic font on thick, cream-colored paper, at $600 a copy. (She published it from 1965 to 2011.) In December 2008, Ken Lewis, the chief executive of Bank of America, escorted Davis as his date to a black-tie dinner at which he received the Banker of the Year award from the newspaper American Banker.

Davis sometimes sounded like a voice from Main Street when she questioned chief executives at shareholder meetings. But at the 2008 gala with Lewis, she carried none of Main Street’s anger at the country’s biggest banks.

The financial crisis was raging at the time, and Lewis was under fire for Bank of America’s purchases of two teetering financial firms, Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch. But Davis said she still thought he was all right.

When asked about the wave of foreclosures that were then pushing the United States economy into a deep recession, she said, “I feel bad for all of these people who lost so much, but you have to expect that Wall Street is not a one-way street.”

Evelyn Yvonne DeJong was born Aug. 16, 1929, in Amsterdam, the daughter of Herman H. and Marianna (Witteboon) DeJong. Her mother was a psychologist, her father a neurologist. The family was wealthy; Davis liked to say that she had been born on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean but on “the very right side of the tracks.”

The DeJongs’ Jewish roots made them a target of the invading Nazis after World War II began. Evelyn and several other members of her family were arrested. She was imprisoned for a time in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia before she was released. Making her way to the United States, she, her parents and her brother, Rudolph, settled near Washington in 1942.

After graduating from high school, she attended Western Maryland University and George Washington University but did not graduate. She later moved to New York and began investing in companies and public bonds, using money she had inherited from her father when he died in 1956.

Though she bought shares in more than 80 companies, Davis kept a significant portion of her money in safe, low-yielding bonds, which helped her weather several stock market slumps. Tax filings show her charitable foundation had assets of more than $11 million at the end of 2017.

She married William Henry Davis, an accountant, a few months after her father’s death. The marriage ended, after just 18 months, in divorce, as did three subsequent marriages — to Marvin Knudsen, Walter Froh Jr. and James Patterson. She kept Davis’ surname.

“Moving fast is a habit with me,” she wrote in 1970 after her second divorce. “My last marriage lasted only two months.”

That same year she wrote a Sunday travel article in The New York Times describing an around-the-world trip in which, traveling alone, she visited 20 countries in 30 days.

Davis displayed her idiosyncrasies not just at shareholders meetings. She bought a grave site at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington in 1981 and, long before her death, began populating it with engraved stones that memorialize loved ones and chronicled her life as (according to an inscription etched in stone) “Queen of the Corporate Jungle.” (“Two divorces — no children,” she wrote in one inscription, then amended it with “a third divorce took place in 1994.”)

One stone boasts that she had been recognized “by several presidents” at White House news conferences. (She obtained White House press credentials because of her newsletter.) Davis saw to it that she would be remembered after her death in other ways as well. A spokesman for her foundation said she had left instructions to distribute most of its millions to a list of universities, hospitals and arts centers.

She also directed that a portion of the money be used for something else: the maintenance of the plaques the charities would install in recognition of her donations. She asked that they remain intact and that they be polished in perpetuity.

“The executor of my estate will check on this every six months,” she told The Washington Post in 1995, “to make sure I don’t get double-crossed.”