IR lessons learned during the Sars outbreak

Jun 04, 2020
John Gollifer looks back at how the IR community responded to the Sars crisis

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) hit Singapore on the back of the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and amid economic doldrums that had persisted since the dotcom bubble burst in the new millennium.

At the time, I was at Singapore Exchange (SGX), where I was responsible for corporate strategy and marketing, including a broad remit of communications, of which IR was the key market-facing role. I had joined SGX following the IPO of what was then only the third exchange to go public and submit itself to a new asset class of capital market operators that no one really understood. To exacerbate a prevailing mood of uncertainty, with SGX shares still languishing around the IPO price of $1.10, a new CEO joined in early 2003 – enough to really put the cat among the pigeons. The SGX share price, a bellwether for the broader market, didn’t exactly inspire confidence given it suggested that we weren’t going anywhere fast.

IR’s first big action was to seek new ways to deliver our message. I remember presenting as a talking head and passable avatar at a virtual conference at 6.00 am to address international investors that had either already started their day or stayed up in the western hemisphere. The strangest part was how intimate and engaging it felt – after that experience, I swore our roadshow days were over.

This was reinforced by a general refusal to entertain face-to-face meetings when markets were quickly responding to cases of Sars. At SGX, we never turned a visitor away, particularly if he or she had traveled from afar. The IR function continued to honor all its commitments, including overseas, where we were allowed to meet investors.

We ramped up our communications and we didn’t stop after Sars passed later in 2003. In some ways, the hardest part of the pivotal role we played at that time was to persuade the powers that be, particularly in transition with impending staff redundancies, that this was the time for IR – a golden opportunity to shine when perhaps others were scaling back or even withdrawing. Once we had convinced management that we could and should do more, including getting out and about, the scales seemed to fall from our eyes. IR was to become much more than it had been post-IPO. We refocused our attention and we strengthened the IR team as SGX repositioned itself as the Asian Gateway. After all, if the market can’t do investor relations, who can?

Truly, it was to become the best of times. Singapore emerged stronger and its proactive response to Covid-19 has demonstrated a relative exemplar in resilience and concerted political and social action.

Life goes on, economies recover and we do learn at every turn. We can always come out of adversity stronger and be ready for the next time. For the record, the SGX share price was to peak at $17.20 around five years later.

The world has changed again; we must change again, too, and do even better again. I’m sure we will and I know that IR as a strategic business asset can and will respond. It’s time to rebuild, invest in IR for the long term and be even stronger and more resilient. Let’s get ready. The world needs sustainable businesses.

The key IR lessons learned during Sars

  • Be bold and present by using all available channels and resources at your disposal.
  • Retain and build on all relationships, both internally and externally – people don’t forget.
  • Think differently and accept that everything can change (and that everything has changed).
  • Above all, remember your role and your purpose.
  • Why do you still exist, and how do you remain relevant and more productive, regardless of what is going on around you?

 

John Gollifer is the general manager of MEIRA and served as senior vice president of Singapore Exchange from 2001 until 2012

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of IR Magazine

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