Observations of a Knock-out Investor Conference

Three people got punched in the face and knocked out at the 16th Annual B. Riley & Co. Investor Conference, held last week at a Hollywood hotel, directly next door to where the final episode of American Idol was being recorded at the same time.

It was not the kind of night-time brawl to which investors are accustomed. And fortunately, it was not investors who felt the sting of those punches.

Rather, in partnership with the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation, B. Riley hosted the 6th Annual “Big Fighters, Big Cause” charity boxing night in conjunction with the conference. The event supports the Foundation’s mission to raise funds for research and awareness to cure Type 1 diabetes and to help children live healthier lives.

For an organization that is part of a fraternity generally known more for greed and making money for itself and its clients, it was refreshingly cool to be part of this invitation-only charity event, that featured food by Wolfgang Puck, an open bar, a world class auction of iconic memorabilia, and a rich environment for business networking.

As for the day-time part of the conference…it was pretty cool as well. More than 200 emerging and middle market companies from a wide range of industries presented to packed rooms of institutional investors, who journeyed to Hollywood from all parts of the United States.

Attendees were treated to chair massages with short lines, fun tchotchkes from sponsors— including a wide array of pens, flashlights, chocolate, ginger candy, key chains, cute little footballs and many glass bowls in which to deposit business cards, with chances to win even bigger items. As well, there was the option of skipping a presentation or two and sashaying down Hollywood Boulevard to gaze at the stars.

There were more men wearing ties than one would expect. There were more people showing off their new Apple watches than one would expect. And just as one would expect, there were many great presentations, and, of course, some boring ones.

It was a classy conference…one could say a knock-out conference in all respects, in which the presenting companies, the investors, the sponsors, and best of all, kids with Type 1 diabetes, all benefitted.

- Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Party in Omaha

Berky BoxToday, I’m taking a look at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha. Home to basketball and hockey games, rock concerts, a convention center, and yes, Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting.  The Arena holds more than 18,000 screaming fans, or, in this case, shareholders. Estimates put visitors to the 2015 annual meeting at about 40,000.

Most annual shareholder meetings amount to nothing more than required legal statements, perhaps a company presentation, and if you’re lucky, refreshments. Berkshire Hathaway takes annual meetings to a whole new level. The opportunity to buy Berkshire-themed trinkets from subsidiaries Heinz, Fruit of the Loom and Oriental Trading (including a set of Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger rubber duckies for $5 and Berky Boxers, which CNN proclaim a long-time best seller)…check. The opportunity to eat a piece of a gigantic ice cream cake created by Dairy Queen in celebration of Warren Buffet’s 50th anniversary of taking control of Berkshire Hathaway…check. The chance to run a 5k among other Berkshire investors…check. There is even a detailed Visitor’s Guide outlining the many activities in and around the shareholder meeting. The guide provides information on “seat saving,” “microphone manners,” and the annual “Newspaper Tossing Challenge” in which Buffet challenges anyone to a 35-foot World-Herald paper tossing contest. If any participant lands a paper closer to the doorstep of the Clayton Home, that participant will receive a Dilly Bar. What’s a Dilly Bar anyway? Sounds more like a party, and why not with thousands of shareholders and a Chairman who calls the annual meeting a “Woodstock for Capitalists.”

Was any actual business conducted at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting? Absolutely. Although most investors unequivocally love him, the questions were not the softballs you might expect. Among the things he and Munger were asked, according to MarketWatch, during a nearly six hour Q&A session, included refuting accusations that Berkshire subsidiary Clayton Homes engages in predatory lending practices, whether IBM is a “cigar-butt” stock, referring to a company that is “a good value investment, but with only a couple of puffs left,” and whether Coke’s competitive advantage is narrowing. When talking about changing consumer preferences for food and drink, the 84-year-old Buffet commented, “If I lived my whole life eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I probably wouldn’t live as long.”

While I certainly don’t think many, if any, companies should follow Berkshire’s lead when planning their annual meeting, there are a few lessons to be learned. Be shareholder friendly. Communicate in a style that everyone will understand, and make it easy for investors to access your information, attend your meeting and own your stock. Make your annual meeting worthwhile. While tchotchkes are nice and provide shareholders with a fun reminder of their stock ownership, most would likely prefer an open and honest Q&A with management to help them understand a company’s future plan and how they are going to get there. You don’t need to give them six hours, but you should provide a forum for their questions and commentary.

With annual meeting season upon us, let us know if you’ve been to a great meeting, and also if you’ve seen anything that made you cringe (company names are not required). To Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger and Berkshire Hathaway, I say…party on!

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

‘Wexting’ Etiquette

Text imageHard to believe that within the last two decades we’ve gone from a virtually email-less society to one that requires us to check an inbox every minute.  The weekend arrives and the flow of email that used to subside now beckons us relentlessly.

And just when you thought email was the end all be all for 24/7 engagement, texting in the workplace or “wexting” is becoming more commonplace.  In fact, a recent survey said that approximately one in seven millennials prefer text messaging compared with other forms of work-related communication.  And so, following is PondelWilkinson’s unofficial guide to wexting etiquette:

  • It may be difficult to resist, but avoid using emoticons at all costs.
  • Acronyms are extremely common in textville, and at the same time very confusing. Assume the recipients of your texts are acronym-illiterate and spell everything out.
  • Sign your texts with your first name. You may believe your officemate or client has your cell phone number programmed in their phone. Not so much. Sign your name, so you don’t have to send or receive the always embarrassing “who is this?” text.
  • Consider beginning your text with “Hi <insert name>”. Yes, this makes texting sound more formal, but it is much more pleasant in work-text situations than simply going full bore with “I need that press release today.”
  • Keep texts to five lines or less. If you need more space, send an email or pick up the phone.
  • Let the boss initiate the texting.   It is still somewhat of a more personal communication tool and better left for the boss to decide if it’s time to go there.
  • Spell check your texts and use proper punctuation.
  • Consider putting a bounceback on texts when you’re away from your phone more than a couple of hours. Texting requires even more immediacy than email, so better to have your guard up.
  • Make sure web addresses and phone numbers are hyperlinked.
  • Do not use all caps.
  • Turn off  notifications that you have “read” a text. If a wexter knows you have “read” his or her text and haven’t responded for hours, that wexter is gonna be annoyed.   Most iOS devices allow users to turn off receipts for iMessage.

– Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

Access, Tenure, Pay

The 2015 proxy season is underway, and following our exhaustive annual Google search for trends, it is clear that three major issues are leading the way on this year’s ballots: corporate access; board tenure/composition; and once again, executive pay.

Regarding corporate access, everyone seems to be talking about New York City Controller Scott Stringer’s filing of proxy access proposals at 75 companies, all at once, whose shares are owned by the New York City Pension Funds. Stringer’s proposals, as with most on this subject, request that companies adopt bylaws giving shareholders who own at least 3 percent of a company for three or more years the right to list their director candidates, representing up to 25 percent of the board. Some call for 5 percent ownership. There are some interesting pros and cons of letting shareholders have their way so easily, explained well in a Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/corpgov/.

On the board composition/tenure issue, just how long can a board member serve and still be an independent advocate of the shareholders? Investors are concerned that long-serving directors may not be really independent and engaged. They may have made too many friends on the board and among the management teams. Institutional Investor Services (ISS), www.issgovernance.com, the leading proxy advisory firm, says nine years should be about it. Other aspects of this subject that are gaining steam include board diversity, with the term “board refreshment” becoming quite in vogue.

Lastly, always a bugaboo, the subject of executive compensation again seems to be receiving heightened attention. Aligning pay with performance is nothing new and always good, and boards seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. Even though the votes are non-binding, “yes” or a “no” votes that do not pass by large margins can signal shareholder discontent. Many companies see major swings in their say-on-pay votes from one year to the next. Read more at www.corporatesecretary.com.

- Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

And the Award Goes To…

5 seconds of summerAustralian boy band Five Seconds of Summer recently won an award for “Best Fan Army” at the iHeart Music Awards. The award was not associated with any one of their songs, albums, concerts or music videos.  Instead, it was an award based on the group’s online social media engagement.

As I watched the band accept the award and thank their fans (with their Twitter moniker “@5sosFam” flashing across the screen), all I could think of was that somewhere out there was a PR pro doing a happy dance because they just helped the band win a music award.

A recent study conducted by Networked Insights found that a single tweet expressing the desire to see a film translated to the equivalent of $1,100 to $4,420 in additional box office revenue, depending upon how many weeks before the movie’s release the tweet is made.

Strategic PR employs a variety of tools to extend and expand awareness of a brand, product or person – from news releases to social media to media relations, but when was the last time you heard of a Golden Globe being awarded to an actor or director for the best original tweets or a J.D. Power award for best branded Facebook page for a car?

Social media and PR are not mutually exclusive. Engaging social media is a form of PR, and the more effective the social media engagement, the more personal and direct connection between the audience/consumer and the product idea or concept. While most older PR tools are unidirectional in promoting an idea or association with a brand, product or person, social media invites the intended audience to become an active participant in the dialogue, resulting in a multi-directional effort that can be self-perpetuating (for better or for worse). At its core, social media turns each of us into a PR powerhouse – through what we talk and post about on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media outlets.

As the Networked Insights study demonstrates, this can translate to real, measurable dollar value, and the possibility that sometime in the future, the Oscars could include an award for “Best Movie Fan Following.”

– E.E. Wang, ewang@pondel.com

Up ‘Periscope’

Periscope_033015Twitter’s launch of Periscope, which allows anybody to live stream video from a smartphone to anyone in the world with a simple click of a button, has profound implications for the communications world, creating millions of “on-the-scene reporters” and another medium to engage for the investor relations and public relations industry.  Fittingly, in the announcement of the app, Twitter said, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but live video can take you someplace and show you around.”

With the ability to instantly notify followers that you’re live, Periscope adds an element that’s been missing with the use of video in IR and PR worlds: immediacy.  Live streaming provides for immediate action in a crisis, while also allowing for greater transparency by going beyond the 140-word character limit of Twitter.  Everything from an earnings conference call to a product announcement can now be broadcast live.

At the same time, it opens up a whole set of risks, including as PR News discusses, a “new chapter for the hot-mic problem,” not to mention a bevy of disclosure issues. Of course, it will take several years before live streaming becomes more commonplace. In the meantime, it makes sense to ponder the possibilities of how it could make your story more compelling.

– Matt Sheldon, msheldon@pondel.com

For Public Companies, It’s Always Something

It seems like every day there is a new article or hypothesis about corporate boards and governance.  Diversity…Say on Pay…Proxy Access…Tenure.  You name it, it’s been debated.

A new Ernst and Young study takes on the topic of board member skills, or more specifically providing more disclosure to investors about the skills and experience of board members.  According to Ernst and Young, “Investors increasingly seek confirmation that boards have the skill sets and expertise needed to provide strategic counsel and oversee key risks facing the company, including environmental and social risks.”  Of the 50 institutional investors interviewed, more than three-quarters do not believe companies do enough to explain why they have the right people in the boardroom.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a thorough approach to selecting directors is more important than lower mandatory retirement ages for board members.  It only makes sense that investors be more concerned about what each director can bring to the table (pun intended) than how old that director is or how long they have been serving.  Although, these issues are also hot buttons for today’s boards.

As we tweeted earlier this week, there are more than 100 proxy access proposals thus far in 2015, up from just 17 last year, signaling that institutional investors want to be part of the process for selecting who will be guiding the companies they own.  Fourteen corporations are taking a more proactive approaching by voluntarily agreeing to give investors the ability to nominate their own directors.

It will likely be some time before corporate America turns over the board selection process, but in the meantime, we continue to believe that disclosure and transparency in governance for listed companies are the best way to build and maintain credibility and goodwill.

– Laurie Berman, lberman@pondel.com

Remaking Tuesday

EBOTIt’s Tuesday…that day of the week when your lazy Sunday afternoon nap is a distant (but fond) memory and the manic frenzy of Monday has passed, but the rest of the work week still seems like a long stretch of road.

Here at PondelWilkinson, we’ve decided that Tuesday needs a makeover. For too long, Tuesday has been treated like the Jan of the Brady Bunch week – taken for granted, overlooked and underappreciated despite serving as the stepping stone to Hump Day, Throwback Thursday, and Thank God It’s Friday.

In our humble opinion, it’s time we remember and acknowledge why #EverythingsBetterOnTuesday (or #EBOT, for short)

Here’s just the start of a list we’ve come up with:

  • #EverythingsBetterOnTuesday because let’s face it — it isn’t Monday
  • #EverythingsBetterOnTuesday because you can usually find some two-fer deal
  • If you’re in PR, #EverythingsBetterOnTuesday because it’s easier to talk to reporters
  • #EverythingsBetterOnTuesday because you can usually find a radio station that will play two songs in a row from your favorite artist : )
  • If you’re in the stock market, #EverythingsBetterOnTuesday because it’s typically the largest purchase day of the week (Wall Street types don’t call it “Turnaround Tuesday” for nothing)

So after you finish that last sip of your morning coffee, square up those shoulders and take a moment to appreciate the day. Because everything’s better on Tuesday.

Share with us your photos and thoughts on why #EBOT ; ) We’ll share our favorite posts next Tuesday!

–E.E. Wang and George Medici

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a periodic feature by PondelWilkinson that turns a critical eye on the way quarterly results are communicated.

The Good

Earnings season is nearing its end, and after all of the Q4 news releases and conference call transcripts have been parsed and picked away at like a bone-in fillet, it’s time to debrief about the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to communicating results.

Let’s start with the good. More companies are embracing the use of video when conducting earnings calls, and T-Mobile did an excellent job streaming its Q4 results in real time.   Of course, the company delivered record growth, so who knows if the positive energy would still pervade on video if the numbers were worse.

The Bad

Certain adjectives and verbs continue to see the light of day in earnings releases when they should’ve been put to bed a long time ago. Following is a short list: pleased, thrilled, excited, disruptive, highly anticipated, state-of-the-art, cutting edge, and leading.

The Ugly

I was recently invited to speak to MBA students at the University of Southern California about investor relations.  We were discussing conference calls and how analysts and investors queue up during the calls to ask management questions.   Apparently, a fairly prominent short seller had lectured to the same group a few weeks ago and said he poses as a well-known, long-only buyside institution to get into the queue and then when it’s his turn to ask a question, he hammers home his short-sighted agenda.

OK, that’s a wrap for the good, the bad and the ugly for Q4. Until next quarter.

– Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

Tweet TV: Social Media is Making Television Fun Again

EllenNearly 37 million people watched the 87th Annual Academy Awards, down from 44 million last year.  Many reasons may have contributed to the viewership drop, everything ranging from the show’s host performance, to the celebrity of the actors themselves, to the types of films that were nominated.

For many pundits that offered critiques of this year’s Oscars, reviews bordered on ho-hum and boring.  But what may have been seen as a lackluster TV event, much of the action was happening on social media, more so on Facebook than on Twitter.

It’s hard not to watch a live TV event these days without being asked to tweet this or hashtag that.  This year’s Academy Awards were no exception.  While Twitter generated far less interaction than last year, 6 million tweets were posted about the 2015 #Oscars, still a fairly significant number of impressions.

Remember last year’s Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie that actually “broke” Twitter for 20 minutes?  The talk-show host’s photo was retweeted 3.3 million times and seen by 37 million people.  Experts valued the exposure to Samsung (a sponsor of The Oscars and the type of smartphone that was used to snap the photo) in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  While having several of Hollywood’s top A-list celebs in the photo certainly helped it go viral, the tweet nonetheless was a successful integration of TV and social media.

Facebook this year received more engagement, where 21 million people generated 58 million posts, likes or comments about the Oscars, up from 11.1 million users in 2014 generating 25 million interactions.  The social network this year also introduced its Trending Oscars experience that allowed fans to connect in real time about the show, which may have led to the huge engagement.

Clearly, the social experience between Twitter and Facebook is much different, although one thing is abundantly clear for both: engagement.  Today’s social platforms enable two-way communication in real time like never before.  And because tweets and posts are searchable and have a long life span – which may not always be a good thing – the value of engagement is much greater.

For the naysayers about social media, and there are those still out there, new media platforms are extending brands way beyond the TV set and onto the Internet, where discussions continue on for days and even months.

For TV in particular, social media may be giving it a sorely needed boost, especially since fewer people than ever are watching television.   Good content doesn’t hurt either.    Either way, social media is here to stay and actually making TV fun again.

– George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com