3M Co. CEO George Buckley spent most of Tuesday's annual meeting defending 3M's policies on political contributions, fielding compliments on the company's reinvigorated growth and sidestepping queries on whether he'll retire next year.

Stockholders sided with 3M's board and defeated a proposal seeking more accountability on political contributions and another asking the company to reevaluate its position on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's board. The company did not provide vote totals. Both proposals were aimed at 3M's support of conservative causes, including its $100,000 contribution last year to MN Forward, a group that supported Republican Tom Emmer in the governor's race.

"I do compliment Macalester College on having 427 students come and ask questions today," said Buckley, responding to a question on the first shareholder proposal, co-sponsored by Trillium Asset Management and Walden Asset Management, two Boston-based investment firms.

It was a good-natured exaggeration, although it betrayed a certain weariness on Buckley's part. About 10 people in the crowd of 400 at St. Paul's River Centre, including students and faculty members from Macalester and Carleton College, spoke as Walden proxies. In slightly differing ways, they asked Buckley to explain why 3M chose to support Emmer, whose stand against gay rights became a campaign issue. A $150,000 contribution to MN Forward by Target Corp. sparked a store boycott, and the retailer changed its policies on political contributions in February.

Buckley answered all the questions basically the same way: That 3M doesn't take social issues into account when deciding which candidates to support and that it had backed Emmer because of his pro-business stance. Buckley also defended 3M's continued presence on the U.S. Chamber board, something one speaker at the meeting criticized because of the group's opposition to some environmental protection laws and the health care reform bill. Buckley said staying involved with the Chamber is one way to make 3M's voice heard in the organization.

Focus on innovation

Buckley was more eager to talk about 3M's strategy of driving growth through innovation, which he said has helped it emerge from the recession. Two corporate scientists -- one retired and another still working for the Maplewood-based giant -- thanked Buckley for the company's increased focus on innovation.

The company boosted research and development spending last year by 17 percent, to about $1.4 billion, and now churns out about 1,200 new products a year. One of the videos at the meeting featured the recent opening of a new technical center in Colombia. It's a small market compared with China, which accounted for 6 percent of 3M's $26.7 billion in total sales last year, but one that shouldn't be ignored, Buckley said.

"You have to drive growth in small spaces," he said. "You have to do it everywhere."

Speculation over Buckley's future at 3M surfaced late last year when news stories citing unnamed sources reported he wanted to step down this year. Buckley has since said he has no plans to retire early. What's unclear is whether the board would change the retirement policy to allow Buckley to stay on after next February when his contract expires and he turns 65, the company's mandatory retirement age for executives.

"Thank you. It's best I say nothing else," he said after the wife of one employee urged him not to leave.

In an interview after the meeting, Buckley said he still loves his job and that his future with 3M is up to board. He said that when he joined the company in 2005 he decided to develop the executive ranks so that he would someday have a successor.

"If a company can't develop its own talent, isn't that a sign that something's not quite right?" Buckley said. "Now, I feel I've done that."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723