Archive for May, 2011

What’s wrong with this company?

May 31, 2011

A contrarian approach to messaging for investor relations is to ask yourself, “What’s wrong with this company?” Then, in IR reports and presentations, address the weak points of your business – what causes investors to turn up their noses – along with your solutions.

This offbeat idea was prompted by an interview with Anne Gudefin, a stock picker involved in Pimco’s growing presence in the equity markets, in Fortune‘s May 23, 2011, issue. She is a value investor, and like many I’ve talked to Gudefin is looking for stocks that are beaten down – but have upside potential.

“How do you decide a stock is cheap?” Fortune asks. Gudefin says she likes good business models, high barriers to entry and free cash flow. Then she adds:

I also want to see things that aren’t operating perfectly at the moment, so there’s a margin for improvement. I look for there to be a number of catalysts for value to be unlocked. … During the second quarter of last year we bought BP. Because everyone was so negative about it, we were able to buy very good assets at a very cheap price.

Like many on the buy side, Gudefin is looking for companies with a “catalyst for change.” If something’s wrong, the value-oriented investor sees upside potential.

Sure, IR usually focuses on a company’s strengths – great products, competitive advantages, 24-carat gold balance sheet, smart management. We love bar graphs that show a powerful uptrend. We recite accomplishments of each quarter or year.

Maybe IR should look for vulnerabilities. Good investors will find them, anyway. How about bringing issues out in the open? Of course, we won’t title our roadshow presentation “3 Reasons Not to Invest.” But let’s discuss that catalyst for change:

  • Spell out the challenge. Describe the problem objectively, as investors and analysts are likely to see it. Show a capacity for humility, even self-criticism.
  • Define a solution. Emphasize your strategy for solving the problem. The more tangible the actions you lay out, the more you overcome investors’ doubt.
  • Track your progress. Check off actions as you take them. Quantify the progress. Investors will be convinced after a quarter or two of positive results.

Being transparent about problems has drawbacks, of course. Some challenges are tough, they may stretch over several quarters, and you may report a disappointing lack of progress at some stage – or even have to change the strategy.

Think of the really good questions investors sometimes ask. Why are sales flat in your XYZ division? Your gross margin is underperforming these peer companies – how are you addressing that? What business issue keeps you awake at night?

What’s important is that you recognize what is holding back your company’s value and explain to investors that you are implementing a plan to solve that problem. The goal is improving performance that unlock the value for shareholders.

What do you think? Any tips on IR reporting on business problems?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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Having your say on pay

May 19, 2011

As the new reality of “say on pay” votes by shareholders settles in, a guiding strategy for companies should be to have your own say. Investor relations professionals (and senior execs) need to learn how to communicate more clearly and proactively on pay and governance.

By last week, 20 U.S. companies had lost (failed to get 50% support in) say on pay votes so far in 2011, according to a posting today on the CFA Institute blog by Matt Orsagh. He notes that say on pay votes are essentially a communication tool:

The institutional investors we talk to — and it is institutional voters who cast the vast majority of these votes — tell us that they have no interest in setting pay, that compensation committees should do that.  What they do want is to be listened to when they feel there is a disconnect between pay and performance, and to have constructive conversations with companies about how to set things right.

But why wait until shareholders slap you in the face over a disconnect? The “Across the Board” column in the NYSE Magazine second-quarter edition suggests three areas of pre-emptive action on executive compensation issues:

  • Publish readable proxies. “Too often proxy statements are viewed as – and written like – legal documents,” NYSE quotes Ken Bertsch, president of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals. “… too many companies still try to cram too much information into too few pages with very little explanation about compensation policies and how they were developed.” Bertsch cites the CD&A in General Electric’s proxy as a model of clarity.
  • Launch a campaign. More companies are taking their governance and executive compensation stories on the road – meeting with big investors or holding conference calls on pay issues. Stephen Brown, TIAA-CREF’s governance guru, says companies like Avon Products are sending senior governance officers or independent board members to these meetings. (TIAA-CREF has published extensive policies and advice to companies here.)
  • Welcome shareholder views. Communication is, after all, two-way. Patrick McGurn of Institutional Shareholder Services cites the example of Pfizer inviting portfolio managers in to meet with execs for open-ended discussions on governance, pay and compliance issues. PFE has a Contact Our Directors page on its website, too. McGurn also suggests a “fifth analyst call” every year – to discuss governance issues rather than quarterly numbers.

My experience has been that corporate lawyers often guide the strategy on governance issues – and micromanage tactics like the wording of proxy statements. IR professionals, whose job is to communicate, should be more involved.

What’s your thought? Any best practices or examples of how to interact with institutional investors (or retail, for that matter) on governance and pay issues?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

IR is still about the long term

May 12, 2011

Among several bits of wisdom shared by Jane McCahon last night at a NIRI Kansas City meeting is the idea that investor relations, at its core, still has the mission of building a base of long-term investors who believe in your company and its future.

McCahon is VP of corporate relations for Chicago-based Telephone and Data Systems and its publicly traded subsidiary U.S. Cellular. She is a longtime IRO with experience in several industries and is a former chair of the NIRI national board.

Measuring the success of IR isn’t about this quarter, McCahon says. Success develops over several years as you develop a group of long-term investors who understand and support the company’s story.

You can do perception studies to evaluate how the relationships are going. But the ultimate measure will come in a moment, sometime in the future, when you need your shareholders – when management needs a critical proxy vote, support in an M&A situation or buy-in for a follow-on offering.

In that moment, if you’ve been doing your job well, you’ll approach those investors and the answer will come: “We’re with you.”

As for the near term, McCahon says, make an annual IR plan and put it into practice. Focus on what you can control or influence, not what you can’t change.

One IRO asked how you deal with high-frequency trading and the daily gyrations of stocks in today’s hyper-short-term market. McCahon’s advice:

You can’t. What’s your title? Investor relations – not trader relations. Yes, you have to be aware of what it is and be explaining these events to people. But there’s nothing you can do about it – move on.

McCahon says one of the best things an IR professional can do is spend 50% to 70% of your time focusing internally: educating management about investors’ feelings, preparing execs to meet with analysts and shareholders, coming up with Q&As and drilling managers, sharing the IR plan and managing internal expectations.

“What’s changed in IR?” someone asked. Well, this led to a big discussion about fax machines. Too many of us in the room remember when fax machines were the coolest new technology for rapid communication with the market. We punched in fax numbers and waited for it to send. Today, who still owns a fax machine?

McCahon suggests, though, that the heart of IR hasn’t changed: It’s finding and cultivating long-term investors for that moment in the future when you need them.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.