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Quest execs get an earful; also: Travelers investments, Target profits, NWA’s fuel costs and Best Buy’s fees

Qwest executives got an earful from retirees and shareholders yesterday for cutting retiree benefits the same year it awarded $14 million in severance to its outgoing CEO Dick Notebaert. The venting occurred at the company’s annual meeting, the Denver Business Journal reported. The company is based in Colorado but employs more than 4,000 people in Minnesota. Shareholders approved a rule making severance packages more than 2.9 times the value of an executive’s annual pay subject to a shareholder vote.

Is another merger on the horizon for a major Twin Cities company? Reuters reported Thursday that Travelers Co., the St. Paul based insurance firm, said it is keeping its “eyes wide open” for potential investment opportunities. Travelers CEO Jay Fishman said the insurer understands “the risks, the balance sheet risk, the people risk, the culture risk” of acquisitions and would only pursue an acquisition that benefited shareholders. He would not comment to Reuters about speculation that Travelers is in the running to buy Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC’s insurance business.

Did Wal-Mart’s low-price pitch really take a bite out of Target‘s profits? That’s what some analysts said this week when Target announced slower-than-expected sales this spring when Wal-Mart reported higher profits. Seattle blogger and management consultant Markham Lee says that conventional wisdom is wrong. “Wal-Mart and Target are selling different items to different people,” Lee writes. Both sell electronics, but Target’s strengths are clothing and household goods and Wal-Mart’s are groceries and pharmacy. Lee says if anything, Wal-Mart is nabbing customers from other grocery stores.

Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland has said — merger or no merger — rising fuel costs may lead to fewer flights in the future. Is this the beginning?: Northwest is citing fuel costs for dropping its cargo service to Guangzhou, a provincial capital near Hong Kong, MarketWatch reports. Northwest’s Hong Kong general manager told the South China Morning Post that the airline could no longer operate the service profitably because of soaring fuel prices. It is shifting operations to a north China air-cargo hub instead.

Best Buy and its credit-card partner HSBC Bank
is refunding $172.37 to a customer who publicly complained about an unexplained financing fee. The customer told the Consumerist he noticed “debt cancellation” fees ranging from $1.96 to $5.57 on his Best Buy credit card statements. Gotcha Capitalism author Bob Sullivan has written about the fees on his MSNBC blog, the Red Tape Chronicles. The customer likely signed a form at some point authorizing the “service,” which is similar to credit insurance but mostly protects the lender. One former insurance regulator tells Sullivan that customers should never sign. “This does nothing for consumers,” he said. “It’s 99 percent profit for the companies. Just say no, no, no, no.”

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