Corporate annual reports stress strategic planning

What kind of strategy should a company employ in the middle of a recession? How does a company redeploy its assets? Is productivity lagging in America?

These are the kinds of questions investors are likely to find tackled in annual reports now working their way through the mails.

Some of the themes this year revolve around corporate strategies, redeployment of assets, and competiting with foreign companies, observes William P. Dunk, president of Corpcom Services Inc., which produces annual reports for many large corporations. ''There is a tendency when a crunch is on to either talk long about the future or to shut up totally,'' he comments. ''Strategic planning'' and ''redeployment of assets'' are the corporate buzzwords this year.

In the January issue of Planning Review, writers Laura N. Gibson and Robert G. Murdick note that ''Judging from the increasing number of strategic statements appearing in company advertisements, stockholder meetings, and annual reports, corporate executives now believe there is a clear connection between strategic management and profitability.'' Planning Review found that 65 percent of the companies listed on the Fortune 500 had some component of corporate strategy in their 1980 annual report.

For example, the Borden Inc. annual report - on the cover - tells shareholders, ''The divestiture phase of our redeployment program is complete.'' And, still on the cover, where shareholders will be sure not to miss it, the company croons, ''Our priority now is to get maximum results in coming years from the reinvestment of the funds generated.''

According to James McCrory, director of public affairs at Borden, the redeployment theme used this year was to give the shareholders a feeling of continuity; the company first announced its divestiture program in its 1980 annual report. The reaction from shareholders, says Mr. McCrory, has been ''excellent.'' And, he adds, ''Even better, the stock has gone up.''

Ingersoll-Rand emphasizes its strategic planning on the cover of its annual report by featuring a product - half in blueprint form, half completed - from each of three operating subsidiaries. Over the pictures is the headline: ''Blueprint for achievement.''

And the Signal Companies annual report, after describing each of its four major divisions, has a separate section on the strategy of each. Although not particularly specific, it does include areas that the divisions consider potential new markets.

Manufacturers aren't the only companies mapping out their strategies for shareholders. The Bank of America in its new annual report uses the theme ''Extending Our Reach'' to explain to shareholders that it no longer is purely a bank - but is striving to be in the forefront of the ''financial services'' business. As an example of this shift, the bank points to its acquisition of Charles Schwab & Co. Inc., a brokerage house.

Another bank, Manufacturers Hanover Corporation, although not stressing its strategy, took a look at America through the eyes of E. J. Kahn Jr., a writer for The New Yorker. The bank, noted its chairman, sent Mr. Kahn on a tour of the country because ''we wanted to test our belief that beneath the surface of raw statistics the American spirit remains alive and well.''

International Business Machines, in its annual report, picks productivity as a theme. The giant computer manufacturer, citing lagging economic output and high inflation, points out demand for more information is growing as the world tries to improve its productivity. The company not only highlights how its customers are improving their productivity using IBM products but how the company itself is improving its own productivity.

Corporations this year are also simplifying their annual reports. Although investors can still ask for 10-k forms, which give detailed financial information, Mr. Dunk notes that many companies are producing annual reports that have only 30 to 36 pages and are full of artwork and graphics. The Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, for example, fills the first 20 pages of its annual report with graphics that illustrate its major business lines. The company also has written ''case histories'' about its four major business lines, detailing somewhat how they operate. The facts and figures about the company are in the back of the book.

In producing the facts and figures that describe them, more corporations are putting captions over charts. Shell Oil announces over one chart: ''Shareholders' equity has increased 72 percent since 1977 reflecting earnings reinvested in the business.''

But some companies don't change. US Steel uses no charts or graphs in its annual report and still puts its financial review on light-blue sheets, a practice many firms dropped a decade ago.

The market finally bounced back last week, reflecting what many analysts considered an oversold condition. The Dow Jones industrial average picked up 8. 28 points, closing at 805.65. RCA Corporation, which has been the subject of takeover rumors, was active all week and higher. Electronics companies, which had been battered recently by some lower-than-expected earnings reports also bounced higher.

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