Investor relations at StarHub

Aug 01, 2008
<p>Jeannie Ong, head of IR and corporate communications at Singapore telecoms company StarHub, discusses the challenges that come with her role</p>

When IR magazine caught up with Jeannie Ong, head of IR and corporate communications at StarHub, she had just come back from a grueling schedule of meetings and conferences in Hong Kong and Tokyo.

StarHub’s international investor base necessitates frequent visits to the US and Europe as well as regular jaunts throughout Asia, and Ong estimates she spends about 20 percent of her time on the road. ‘We have more investors in the US than Europe, so I typically visit investors in America three times a year,’ she comments.

For Ong, working at Singapore’s second-largest mobile operator is about finding a balance between getting out and meeting investors and being available to deal with day-to-day inquiries.

‘I think it’s important to be accessible, especially if there is news in the market that might unsettle investors,’ she says. ‘We are often profiled in the media, so corporate communications and IR easily take up 70 percent of my time.’

Things in the telecoms sector continue to progress rapidly. One of StarHub’s competitors, SingTel, recently held talks with operators in China about investing there as the market prepares to open up to foreign investors. But while many other telecoms companies are playing the acquisition game, StarHub remains Singapore-focused – something that initially made some growth investors wary of the stock. Despite these reservations, Ong maintains that her company’s strategy is paying off.

‘There are already players out there with deeper pockets than us,’ she explains. ‘For us, there’s no need to branch out when there’s so much to do in Singapore already.’

Standing strong?
Ong notes that the telecoms sector as a whole has held up relatively well in the bearish market conditions. But can a sector ever really be thought of as recession-proof?

‘I’m skeptical,’ Ong admits. ‘A lot of analysts view telecoms as a defensive stock, but I’m not sure about that. When you have an economic slowdown and high inflation like we have at the moment, consumers tend to tighten their purse strings even more. Having said that, telecoms stocks have performed pretty well in all this market volatility.’

StarHub listed on the main board of Singapore Exchange in October 2004 to allow significant direct investors such as British Telecom, NTT Investment Singapore, Singapore Press Holdings and government-owned broadcaster MediaCorp to reduce their holdings. The biggest shareholder, government investment agency Singapore Technologies Telemedia, chose to retain its 49.2 percent stake through its investment arm Asia Mobile Holdings – and still does to this day.

While Ong brings a substantial amount of communications experience to the table, she admits her knowledge of IR was initially scant when she started in the role. ‘When I was first enlisted to set up the IR and corporate communications department, I knew nothing about investor relations,’ she says. She did have a solid background in communications, however, having worked in public relations and marketing at Singapore Changi Airport.

Team spirit
Ong cites her talented and supportive colleagues as being key to her success. ‘I am extremely blessed to have a strong team of PR and IR professionals, and my CEO believes my job is not to create a higher share price for the company but to build and sustain credibility within the investor community,’ she says.

Far from dreading dealings with difficult shareholders, Ong claims to enjoy a challenging Q&A session. ‘I believe the quietest and least bothersome investors are every IRO’s worst nightmare,’ she states. ‘While I love meeting all my investors or potential investors, I tend to prefer to deal with more demanding shareholders.’

The IR community in Singapore is a relatively close-knit one, and Ong makes time to get involved with IRPAS, the Singapore investor relations society. She also cites the regular conferences for Asia-Pacific IROs as a great opportunity to exchange best practice tips. ‘IROs often get invited to the same overseas conferences, so we usually meet up at events when we travel,’ she says. ‘I have established friendships with many IROs based outside Singapore.’

If investors in the West are looking to Asian companies, what markets will Asian companies be targeting in years to come? ‘At the moment I am eyeing Middle Eastern funds,’ Ong says.

Arguably, IROs in Europe and beyond would do well to do the same – the IR Magazine Awards have shown some Singaporean IROs to be regional standard setters and on a par with the best in the business.

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