It's the $150,000 issue that won't go away for Target Corp.
A corporate donation one year ago to a group supporting then Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer continued to nag the Minneapolis-based retailer Wednesday.
Target Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel faced a barrage of critical questions about the political donation after providing an upbeat assessment of the company's overall performance before shareholders at its annual meeting in Pittsburgh.
"We learned a lot last year," Steinhafel said of the criticism over the company's controversial $150,000 contribution on behalf of Emmer. "We took the feedback seriously."
Steinhafel said the company subsequently developed a policy committee to provide oversight of future corporate political giving. "We have a process in place now. We want to move forward and not reflect on the past," Steinhafel told shareholders.
But that did not spare Steinhafel or Target from sharp questioning on the company's MN Forward contribution for Emmer, an opponent of gay marriage.
"Knowing what you know now, would you make the same contribution?" one shareholder asked.
"We've sufficiently addressed that topic," Steinhafel replied. "We want to move forward and not reflect on the past."
Only two of the 12 questions Steinhafel fielded near the end of the hourlong meeting dealt with subjects other than political contributions. At one point Steinhafel asked shareholders, "Are there any questions related to something else?"
Target is the latest among major U.S. companies, including 3M and Best Buy, to take heat for corporate campaign contributions to independent organizations, a type of giving legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court before the 2010 election.
Questions on Target's political activities were not unexpected, but Steinhafel's answers were the company's most extensive on the subject. He said Target will stay politically neutral when it comes to social issues such as gay marriage but wants "a seat at the table" when it comes to business issues such as credit-card swipe fees, health care, tax and trade issues.
Caution on near-term growth
In the business portion of the meeting, Steinhafel spoke enthusiastically about Target's financial prospects and repeated earlier projections that sales would reach $100 billion in the next six to seven years and that earnings per share would double to $8 or more in that time.
But Steinhafel cautioned that near-term growth could be "slow and uneven" as consumers keep a close eye on their budgets and purse strings.
"There are some near-term challenges" in the current economy, Steinhafel said.
At the same time, however, he said Target would be entering new markets and hopefully attracting new customers beginning next year as it opens smaller, urban versions of the big-box store in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.
In 2013, Target will open its first stores outside the United States with 100 to 150 new stores in Canada.
"A survey showed that 70 percent of Canadians are familiar with Target and 11 percent have shopped at a Target within the last year," Steinhafel said. "This is a defining moment for our company."
Steinhafel told shareholders that the Target board of directors approved a 20 percent increase in the company's quarterly dividend, from 25 cents to 30 cents a share.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269