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Execs put on casual look in annual reports

The annual report is a corporation's most important communications tool, conveying its image and mission. So why, in General Electric's latest report, are Chairman John Welch and his three top lieutenants in their shirt sleeves? What explains Microsoft's Bill Gates looking pensive sans coat and tie? And Amoco CEO Larry Fuller and Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro in natty sweaters?

"It's a rub-off of dress-casual Fridays," says Sid Cato, the guru of annual reports who for 15 years has picked the world's best and worst. A lot of CEOs "who rake in millions are trying to say "we're just as down to earth as the next guy,' " he said.

Some chief executives claim that in shedding their jackets and ties, they're sending a powerful motivational message. Howard Witt, chief executive to Littlefuse Inc., says the informal look in his company's annual report this year reflects his efforts to promote teamwork at the Des Plaines, Ill., maker of fuses. "A suit-and-tie culture sometimes gets in the way of good communications and teamwork," said Witt, whose 2,850 employees are permitted to wear casual attire every day.

Witt's photos accompanying the annual CEO letter in recent years illustrate the trend: in the 1995 report, he wore the customary dark suit and tie. Last year, he discarded the coat, and this year he's in a plaid shirt and sweater. "Next year it's going to be bathing suits," he said jokingly.

The casual look in TALX Corp.'s annual report is designed to lure new talent, says William Canfield, chairman and CEO. He had the St. Louis software concern's four-member executive team photographed without ties or coats. "Our report is just as much a recruiting tool as a financial tool," he said.

A few CEOs, though, are finding that the dressed-down look doesn't play so well globally. Last year, Ameritech CEO Richard Notebaert was shown in shirt sleeves, and he favored that look again. But this year's report emphasizes the telecommunications company's growing European operations. Spokesman George Stenitzer says the company's Danish strategic partner made it clear it expected Ameritech executives to wear coats. "Shirtsleeves turn them off," he said.

Notebaert is back this year, wearing a black suit, starched white shirt and red- and black-striped tie.