Metrics are the message

Flipping through the annual report of an oil company I own a few shares in, I skimmed over the usual headline cliches (“proven business model,” “rigorous execution,” “strong results”). As a shareholder – and a practitioner of investor relations – I’m glad they don’t have a discredited business model, lackadaisical execution or weak results. But maybe there’s something more to take the measure of this company.

As a casual weekend reader, I passed over the gray-looking shareholder letter. I did have to circle back and see if there was an explanation of that puzzling schematic diagram on the cover – it was an engineer’s view of the company’s proprietary oil sands technology, of all things, decorating the cover of the annual report.

Finally I landed on a page headed Financial Highlights. And there I dug in.

You often hear investors say, “It’s about the numbers.” Or if you talk a bit more, the numbers and management – because having the confidence to bet money on a company includes believing in the management team.

But the numbers – more particularly, key metrics – are the main thing investors are looking for in a company’s disclosures, reports and presentations.

The metrics and what management is doing about them are the strategic message.

When I landed on the financials in this report, my eye was drawn to the 5-year history of sales and a similar line for net income – both up nicely in 2011, looking like the last time oil prices were high, in 2007-08. I scanned down to ROE and ROCE, both of which which this company provides – nicely. Other metrics of interest … well, they weren’t there, until I went to work on the financials with my calculator.

My thought is that investor relations people ought to make key metrics – those viewed by management and your investors as driving the share price in the long term – easy to find in news releases, reports and presentations. Because key metrics are what investors, whether institutional or individual, are looking for.

A few metrics are likely to be top-of-mind for nearly any company:
  • Earnings per share. Sure, I know the theories about cash flow or some other measure being more important, and some managements are passionate about EBITDA as the key metric. For most shareholders EPS is still the bottom line.
  • Growth rates of sales and earnings. Whether the picture is pretty (sales up 23% in the current period) or ugly (earnings down 14%), companies ought to make growth rates easy to find. And do the math for investors; don’t make ’em get out their calculators.
  • Return on equity – or capital employed or assets. To know whether a business is attractive as an investment, the most basic question is whether it earns more than its likely cost of capital. If  ROE is 27.5%, as an investor I’m comfortable on that issue. If it’s 7.5%, I’m going to look a little closer.
  • Profit margin & its trend. Gross margin seems to be the most popular, or operating margin. Investors want to know the power of a business to take raw material or merchandise, sell it and turn a profit. Margins provide an objective view of the impact of rising costs, dropping prices or lack of scale.

Every industry and many companies have their own key metrics. Same-store sales growth. Net income margin. Proven reserves. Milestones in drug development. Whatever investors see as driving the value of the company for the future.

Of course, companies also offer up all kinds of non-GAAP metrics like “adjusted EBITDA” or “ongoing operating earnings” – which investors may or may not trust. If it works for you, OK, but you may want to validate that with your investors.

In any case, settle on your key metrics (not 20, just a few) and then use them …

Investor reporting ought to emphasize, say, three or four key metrics – make them highly visible in words, tables and graphs – and explain what you are doing about them. When they improve, take credit on management’s behalf – this is what we did to add 50 basis points to margin. When they go the wrong way, acknowledge it and tell shareholders what management is doing now to turn the situation around.

I see metrics as the core message of investor relations. What do you think?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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