Searching for favorite investor relations tools
The twilight of the twentieth century may go down in history as the Great Info Crunch. Sifting, shifting, storing, sending, a new race of 'knowledge workers' is fighting a rising flood of bits and bytes and other building blocks of data.
And IR professionals are in the thick of it. Investor Relations magazine set out to identify the preferred tools of the information moving trade, and found even knowledge workers get very attached to their hardware.
'I love gizmos and gadgets,' confesses Stacey Knapper, assistant vice president of IR at the Money Store. 'And I love my Pilot.'
If you haven't seen a Pilot - an electronic organizer from US Robotics - just elbow your way to the center of the huddles at any professional gathering. The device is the adult equivalent of a Nintendo Gameboy, drawing attention like ants to a picnic.
'It looks like a Star Trek tricorder,' Knapper says to explain the Pilot's allure. 'It has all my goodies in a teeny electronic package - address book, calendar and day planner. And when I slip it into a little holder attached to my PC, it integrates with my regular software.'
Tons o' Info
Other IR executives impart a grander vision. Max Post, VP, corporate staff, and manager of IR at Texas Instruments, says his favorite IR tool is the company's new Intranet (that's a private Intranet, not the Internet).
'Our Intranet connects all internal operations,' Post explains. 'All TI product departments and support areas have extensive home pages with tons of information that they keep updated.'
It may sound like an extensive yawn but Post has a point. 'One of the challenges of IR is keeping up with what's going on in the company so I can answer questions from investors,' he says. 'But I can't travel to all the different locations and product development areas of a large company like TI. So I research them on the Intranet instead.'
Say an analyst calls with a query about an obscure backwater of TI operations, Post does a quick word search on the Intranet to find the latest developments and press releases. He can then print out Web pages and fax them to the curious party.
Post's IR team also maintains an Intranet home page. And a considerable number of hits comes from the company's 45,000 employee stockholders.
Just down the Texas highway at Quaker State headquarters, senior VP of corporate relations Stephen Blum also depends on easy access to all his company data. But he prefers to carry it wherever he goes.
'My life's work is in my laptop,' says Blum, who is not afraid to admit his life's work may be measured in megabytes. 'I never leave home without it.'
Sporting a snazzy new IBM Thinkpad 560 - CD-Rom, built-in fax modem, and a nice big screen - Blum always has his scheduling and contact databases near at hand, not to mention historical financial figures. 'Every number Quaker State ever generated is in there,' he boasts. 'It's a convenient, efficient and powerful means of accessing information.'
So when Blum hits the road, he totes not a suitcase full of paper, just a four pound machine: 'Instead of killing some trees, I give analysts whatever they want on disk.' Then he stops off at the nearest phone line to pick up e-mail and plug into the Net - 'just a fabulous tool.'
At first nothing pops to mind when Laura Knight considers her favorite IR tool. How about... her wireless phone? You would think the IR manager of Omnipoint Communications, a Washington, DC-based personal communications services (PCS) pioneer, wouldn't need the hint.
'Of course, my PCS phone,' she agrees, 'so I'm always reachable.' Knight is quick to differentiate digital PCS from traditional analog cellular - voice quality is better and there are fewer 'dropped' calls. Moreover, Omnipoint's GSM technology is secure and Knight can chat strategy with senior executives without fear of being overheard.
'Down the road, wireless data capabilities will be getting a lot of attention,' Knight adds. 'You can already get stock quotes or send e-mail with a PCS phone.'
Not everyone is so keen on electronic gizmos. 'Tools?' demurs the assistant of one New York IRO. 'Don't bother with us, my boss is extremely low-tech.'
Many IR departments regard sources of incoming information as their most valued tools. At Roadway Express, a Ohio transport company, coordinator of corporate relations Barbra Gonzalez never starts the day without checking out First Call.
'It keeps us informed on what the analysts are saying,' Gonzalez says. 'Today we released our earnings, so I checked it to see what analysts are projecting for us this quarter.'
Roadway subscribes to First Call On Call, a dial-up version of the Thomson Financial Services product, to review analysts' consensus estimates as well as whole research reports. 'Say an analyst makes an error which should not be perpetuated,' Gonzalez explains. 'We see it right away, and we might call up the analyst to correct it.'
Gonzalez says First Call also gives the IR team guidance about points to push: 'An analyst might say, Wow that was great tonnage this quarter. So then we know to focus on tonnage.' Tonnage indeed.
At Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Jacqueline Cossmon, VP of corporate communications, also likes to keep her eye on what's going on in the market. Her favorite tool for this is a stockwatch service.
'It gives us valuable information about who's in and out of our stock on a timely basis,' she says. 'I would rather not wait for 13f filings 45 days after the end of the quarter to find out who owns Shaman stock.'
Another benefit is that Shaman's stockwatch service stays closely connected to the biotech industry and the financial community. 'Rather than waiting till the next day for the Wall Street Journal, Bio World, or one of the industry rags, I can call up the stockwatch guys and find out what's happening immediately,' she remarks.
So while Cossmon receives a daily fax summarizing trading in stocks of Shaman and its peers, she says regular phone chats with the stockwatch team are even more valuable: 'I get all the gossip on the industry round robin - who's doing what, or what sell-side analyst is moving where.'
Shaman isn't heavily traded and has a high proportion of retail shareholders, so it's hard to track who's moving in and out of the stock. 'But it's good to know about those large block trades,' says Cossmon. 'We can see pieces of Shaman moving in or out of certain funds, then proactively and immediately talk to those funds.'
For example, a fund with 200,000 Shaman shares just sold 25,000. 'Uh-oh, what's going on?' Cossmon wonders. 'Is it a brand new portfolio manager who doesn't understand the company or someone starting to eliminate their position? We better find out and see if we can stop it.' So she calls the fund manager, and without revealing that she has a stockwatch service and knows a chunk of stock was sold, she touches base and starts a dialog.
Info In, Info Out
Rick Anguilla, IR director at Nike, is a down-to-earth, just-do-it kind of guy: 'I always thought the original idea behind computers and technology was that they were supposed to be labor saving devices,' he muses. 'But a lot of people have lost sight of that goal.'
An exception, he says, is the Bloomberg terminal: 'It's a tremendous internal education tool for senior management. The Bloomberg allows us to put together lots of important and telling information with a couple of key strokes. That process used to take hours.'
For example, Anguilla can quickly access historical information on Nike's 'consumer branded' peers and put together a report showing where the company stands quantitatively next to 30 peers: 'Then in marketing and targeting to shareholders, we can say, This is how we stand up against these guys.'
Having a live news feed is a boon. 'The market has evolved to where any news is potentially damaging - especially for Nike with athletes competing all over the world,' he says. So if Nike's Euro Division #2 soccer squad gets crushed by the Bonn Bombers, Anguilla knows it right away.
'And with 40 percent of our business outside of the US, we're easily able to keep track of our foreign competitors,' he adds.
Anguilla's is one of three Bloombergs at Nike; treasury and corporate communications also have them. IR's two-screen terminal has a 15-minute delayed stock price on one screen, along with price-to-earnings multiple, trading volume, recent price and volume and the latest Nike news headlines scrolling by. The other screen shows data on Nike's peer group of footwear, apparel, retail and equipment companies, with stock prices and news flags.
One of Anguilla's favorite Bloomberg features is the ability to zap messages straight to reporters if anything factually inaccurate comes up. 'Or if there's some point you want to make, you're on line with them,' he says.
Perhaps it's empowerment like that ability to blast reporters with a touch of a button which attracts us to tools like Bloomberg. IR, of course, is still very much a business of relationships - relationships which all too often hinge on human foibles. No wonder IROs love their unwavering Pilots, Intranets and laptops - they're just so inhuman.