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May 04, 2011

Overseas etiquette for roadshows

IR magazine asks experts how to avoid culture clashes while conducting investor outreach overseas

Savvy IROs might sometimes wish they could bring Miss Manners on their roadshows abroad. Navigating a balance sheet or the barbed questioning of Wall Street analysts can look downright easy compared with mastering the nuances of etiquette in the countries IROs now frequent.

Take Japan, for instance. Honorifics are important, and are conferred upon individuals based on age as well as their status within a company. In addition, certain numbers are to be avoided, says Mary Bosrock, lecturer and author of the Put your best foot forward guidebook series. ‘You never give gifts in fours in Japan or hold a meeting on the fourth floor,’ she says. ‘That’s because the word ‘four’ is pronounced like the word for ‘death’ in Japanese.’

Unfortunately, mastering the niceties of Japan won’t necessarily help you in other Asian countries. ‘Treating Japan and China the same is like treating Germans and Italians as one and the same; cultural distinctions need to be made,’ says Ivan Peill, vice president of IR advisory services in the depositary receipts group at JPMorgan. He emphasizes that making the effort to learn cultural distinctions is worthwhile. ‘Typically, you’re meeting with investors on a roadshow for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour,’ he days. ‘By conforming to the customs, you’re conveying respect and a knowledge about the person you’re meeting and his or her culture.’

John Chironna, vice president of IR at ABB, a Swiss power and automation technology company that trades on the Zürich, Sweden and New York exchanges, agrees. ‘Whatever you do, don’t treat a roadshow abroad like a roadshow in the US,’ he cautions. ‘When I meet an investor for the first time in the US, I can crack jokes and make the situation more relaxed. But I’d be much less keen to do that in Switzerland or London – and it’s not a language thing. You have to be a little more cautious overseas. They tend to be more formal there.’
Card conundrum
In Asia, presenting business cards has been elevated to an art form. The Japanese, for instance, bow, shake hands and then immediately dispense a business card. ‘You should look at the business card a moment and make a comment,’ explains Terri Morrison, co-author of Kiss, bow or shake hands. ‘You should never put the card in your back pocket because you would then ‘sit’ on this mini-3D extension of the person.’

‘Wherever you are in the world, it’s a good idea to treat business cards as something of value,’ says Robert Frye, director and chief of protocol for International Business Protocol and a partner with the Lett Group in Washington, DC. ‘The Japanese are the most formal. They present business cards with thumb and forefinger and with two hands. The card is turned up so you can read it instantly.’

Etiquette ranges from the seemingly absurd to the ultra-sensible. The first camp includes rules such as never sign documents in China with a red pen (it’s how death certificates are signed) and never pour wine with your left hand in Chile or Argentina.

Among the more pragmatic pieces of advice, Frye urges IROs and other executives to keep their body language restrained. In the Middle East, that’s particularly important. ‘You can easily offend Muslim businesspeople by crossing your legs and pointing the sole of your foot toward them,’ he explains. ‘That’s highly offensive. People have left meetings because of that.’

What’s more, personal space is viewed differently from culture to culture. ‘The Germans and Dutch like a lot of space, as do the Asians because you’re bowing and you don’t want your heads to touch,’ says Morrison. In Brazil, Africa or Indonesia, on the other hand, people tend to stand very close, a habit that can disconcert those who like to maintain physical distance.

Notions of promptness also vary by country. ‘Scheduling and punctuality are the main considerations in roadshows,’ says Guy Gresham, New York head of IR advisory for BNY Mellon. One rule of thumb is that a roadshow in Rio shouldn’t be too tightly packed. In Brazil, one-on-ones often go past the allotted hour and executives there think nothing of turning up 30 to 60 minutes after a meeting’s scheduled beginning, adds Morrison.

Learning others’ customs is only half the battle; the other half is tempering one’s own behavior to avoid being tarred as an Uptight Brit or Ugly American. ‘Like it or not, people do have stereotypical views of Americans,’ says Chironna. Bosrock agrees: ‘In roadshows, body language counts. The old American way of back-slapping and using first names is considered a little uncouth in many places in the world.’
Hello, goodbye
When addressing investors whose first language isn’t English, ‘making an effort to learn some common greetings and how to say ‘thank you’ or ‘farewell’ in their language can make a strong impression,’ says Peill.
Frye urges IROs and their management teams to speak slowly and rid their speech of colloquialisms. ‘Many international investors are very gracious and they won’t stop you like an American would to say, You need to speak more slowly, or louder.’
On the other hand, Bosrock points out that ‘making the message too short and sweet, by, for example, using bullet points’ can backfire, too. In Germany, for instance, brevity might telegraph to an institution or analyst that the information being conveyed isn’t particularly important.
Although remembering all these rules may seem a Herculean task, encountering new customs can be one of the deep and abiding satisfactions of telling one’s story overseas.  ‘When you finish a meeting in Japan, some investors will accompany you into the elevator, they’ll walk you outside, they’ll make sure you’re in the taxi or car, they’ll bow and wave to you without returning to their offices until they’ve seen you’re over the horizon. In other Asian countries, there will be some variation of this custom,’ says Peill. ‘Personally, I find it a beautiful custom. It’s one of the pleasures of being on an international roadshow.’