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April 18--The agenda was short, as they usually are.
And the one vote before the shareholders of the Erie Indemnity Co. was anything but a nail-biter.
When the last of the ballots had been cast, 2,525 shares had been voted unanimously to re-elect the same 13 members of the board of directors.
As usual however, the annual shareholders' meeting of the Erie Indemnity Co. offered some insights into the climate at Erie's third-largest employer.
The bottom line from the company's 87th annual meeting?
The Erie Insurance Group faced a tough year of natural disasters in 2011, but growth continued, with the company increasing sales in each of 11 states.
Erie Indemnity Chief Executive Terrence Cavanaugh acknowledged there have been obstacles to overcome.
"The last few years have been very challenging ones for every player in the global economy," he said. "But in 2011, we continued to grow profits for the fourth year in a row."
This year's meeting focused heavily on the disaster claims end of the business. Shareholders watched a short video showing Erie Insurance customers and agents reacting to tornadoes and other weather disasters.
Customers in the video praised the company for its quick and caring response.
The business world has also offered a favorable assessment, Cavanaugh said, noting the company's numerous awards for customer service.
But Cavanaugh, who makes frequent references to the company's catchphrase -- "Above all in service" -- said Erie Insurance is determined to improve.
"We want to be better, and we are committed to being better," he said.
Cavanaugh said the company will continue to make business decisions based on three guiding priorities: ease of doing business, service excellence and innovation.
As usual, the annual shareholders' meeting ended with a flurry of questions from shareholder Laurel Hirt, daughter of the late F.W. Hirt and granddaughter of company co-founder H.O. Hirt.
The Millcreek Township woman, whose questions are a tradition at the annual meeting, peppered company executives with more than a dozen inquiries this year, focusing often on the company's stock repurchase plan and the motivations behind it.
As usual, Hirt also raised questions about the company's investments in technology, suggesting that some of those investments have failed to produce results.
"Shouldn't we know how our money is being spent?" she asked.
Hirt prefaced a question about executive compensation by saying, "This is a bit of a zinger."
Asked about whether employee paychecks were keeping pace with those of the company's executives, Cavanaugh said many company employees have received significant pay raises.
If Hirt's questions have become a tradition, so too have Cavanaugh's answers. The responses, as usual, were polite and patient.
And for his part, Chairman Thomas Hagen returned repeatedly to Hirt's questions when he saw that no one else in the auditorium had any to ask.
JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail.
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