PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — For those who arrived at the Sawgrass Marriott on Monday, a day before it hosted the Wells Fargo annual meeting, the venue offered all the charm of a luxury getaway.
Men in bright-colored polo shirts hit golf balls onto an island green. Women lounged in bathing suits on a poolside patio as pop music played through outdoor speakers. An empty cornhole set invited serious-minded, professional guests to play lawn games in the sun.
But the mood quickly turned early Tuesday morning when shareholders of the embattled Wells arrived on the premises. A chaotic scene unfolded at its annual meeting as investors and activists spoke out against the board, at times yelling or choking back tears.
Shortly after the meeting began, longtime community activist Bruce Marks interrupted the proceedings, demanding to hear from each of the company’s board members, who were all in attendance. Marks, the CEO of Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, called on directors to turn around in their seats in the front of the large and mostly packed convention hall and openly discuss their role in phony-accounts scandal.
“Come on, you guys are here,” Marks said. “Tell us what you know and when you knew it!”
For several minutes, Chairman Stephen Sanger and CEO Tim Sloan, who were both onstage, urged Marks to quietly sit down so that the meeting could proceed under regular order.
“Bruce, we’re not going to follow the rules that you make up,” Sloan said.
Marks refused and, during a brief recess, was physically removed from the meeting by law enforcement and security officers. Sanger told attendees that Marks physically accosted members of the board during the break. Sanger’s account was disputed by shareholders later on during the meeting.
The interaction set the tone for what ended up being a raucous annual meeting, a kind of event that’s typically a sleepy affair at most companies in most years. But this annual meeting — which ran for nearly three hours — was the first since the San Francisco company agreed in September to pay $190 million to settle charges that 5,300 employees wrongfully created more than 2 million unauthorized accounts.
On the one hand, Wells managed to avoid what was seen in the days leading up to the meeting as a likely shareholder revolt. Investors voted to re-elect 12 members and elect three more nominated by the company. Many received only slim majorities, however, signaling a lack of investor support.
But if you want to get a sense of the festering public anger that Wells Fargo continues to face seven months after the settlement, consider the issues raised in person at the meeting by investors and former employees.
At one point, a current Wells employee stood up and said he developed headaches from the stress of working in the retail bank and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. Another employee who recently left the bank said she had developed headaches and eye ticks while working as a credit officer.
Other complaints were more policy-focused. A representative from the AFL-CIO stood up and called for the board to refresh its membership roster.
“Like mushrooms, they have been kept in the dark and fed horse manure,” the union representative said.
Several top-ranking Democrats in Congress on Tuesday echoed the public frustrations, blasting the Wells Fargo board for its oversight of the company — and highlighting the degree to which the phony-accounts scandal has become a political dogfight.
“Well-paid board members should earn their keep instead of just taking what they’re spoon-fed from senior management,” Sherrod Brown, ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — known for her brutal cross-examination of former CEO John Stumpf during a hearing last fall — also blasted directors for their role in the scandal.
“Either Wells Fargo’s board failed to fully investigate the fraud for years or they knew about it and did nothing — either is unacceptable,” Warren said in a tweet.
As expected, none of the shareholder proposals on the ballot were adopted. Proposals on the ballot included requests for the board to issue reports addressing the gender pay gap and corporate lobbying.
A proposal backed by the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility that asked the board to issue a report on the root causes of the sales scandal, also failed, receiving only 22% of the vote.
In the lead-up to the annual meeting, the ICCR —along with governance experts and other social-impact investors — also raised concerns about the choice of location.
Some said that Wells sent a bad message to the public by hosting its annual meeting in a relatively secluded venue. The move suggested members were shirking their commitment to listen to investor concerns.
“They are holding it at a strange place,” Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, said during a recent interview. “It’s not that easy to get to; it sends the wrong signal.”
The Sawgrass Marriott is a 45-minute drive from the Jacksonville airport and is famous for sitting on the border of two championship golf courses. At a clubhouse down the road, a bartender on Monday evening said Vijay Singh — a premier golfer — had recently been spotted practicing in the region.
Last year, Wells' annual meeting was held in Scottsdale, Ariz. In 2015, it was held in St. Louis.
“It is very hard for the public and shareholders to access the meeting at its current location,” Kevin Stein, a deputy director at the California Reinvestment Coalition, said during a press conference on Monday afternoon organized by the ICCR.
Stein said the CRC was unable to attend the meeting because it was so far from the company's headquarters. The group was a co-sponsor of a resolution offered by the ICCR.
As the meeting dragged on into the afternoon, attendance began to wane, as investors steadily shuffled out the door.
As they exited the Sawgrass Marriott, many shareholders likely passed by a Wells Fargo branch, less than a mile down the road.