NIRI 2014 roundup: part one
Las Vegas is already a pretty hot part of the world in June but it experienced a heat wave to coincide with the start of NIRI’s annual conference, pushing temperatures to 40°C. Some attendees spent Sunday afternoon cooling off in the pools of the Bellagio, the Lake Como-themed hotel that is the location of this year’s conference, as they waited for proceedings to officially kick off in the evening.
NIRI’s annual meet-up remains the world’s biggest gathering of IROs, with around 1,300 registrants signing up for 2014. While the number of delegates is roughly the same as NIRI's 2013 conference, there is extra buzz about the place this year given that NIRI has never brought its annual event to Vegas before.
The four-day conference began with welcome drinks in the services showcase – dubbed the experience showcase for 2014 – where sponsors riffed on the Vegas location in their booth designs. One featured a replica of the ‘welcome to fabulous Las Vegas sign’, rebranded to include the firm’s name. Another employed a showgirl to hand out freebies in front of the booth.
During the evening, conference co-chairs Mark Donohue of Impax Laboratories and Polycom’s Laura Graves took to the stage to welcome everyone and set the scene for the rest of the week. The theme of the conference this year is ‘Extreme IR’, which is about pushing the profession and your career to the limits, they explained.
Monday morning offered the chance for IROs to hear more about NIRI’s plan to develop an IR certification. The association has long had the idea of producing its own IR designation but only backed the project officially last September. While some of the details are still to be decided, the NIRI board members present said they had settled on 11 topic areas the certification would be based on, ranging from IR strategy to financial reporting and governance.
The certificate is being envisioned as a stamp of IR competence, rather than a learning exercise, so NIRI imagines only people with at least three years IR experience will be invited to take the exam. The plan is to make it available to IROs around the world and the association has a long-term target of certifying 1,500 IR pros.
After breakfast, it was time to head over to the main conference room for the first general session. Before a panel discussion on activism, delegates watched a number of skits based on the Vegas location, including one in which Donohue and Graves were superimposed onto a clip from casino heist movie Ocean’s 11.
The panel that followed saw senior governance experts talk about the rising threat of activism to public companies. Michelle Edkins, head of corporate governance and responsible investment at BlackRock, said the best defense a company has against activists is a good board, which should already be looking after shareholders’ best interests and properly scrutinizing management.
Edkins and the other panelists – Anne Sheehan, director of corporate governance at CalSTRS and Peggy Foran, chief governance officer and corporate secretary at Prudential – all talked up the benefits of better communication between boards and shareholders. Indeed, shareholder engagement is becoming a bigger and bigger part of what it means to be a board member, they said. Edkins recommended guidelines from the new Shareholder-Director Exchange initiative for advice on how to set up meetings.
Following that session, IROs had the chance to take part in table discussions on a wide variety of topics, ranging from hiring an IRO to integrated reporting and branding. Later, the afternoon included sessions on whether guidance still matters, finding opportunities in sell ratings and rewriting the IR strategic plan.
Monday evening is traditionally the night of NIRI’s main party and, after the end of the sessions, attendees headed to the services showcase for food, drinks and music from a live band. There were also prize draws made by the service providers in attendance. One IRO scored it big and won $500 in Bellagio chips from Q4 Web Systems, before heading to the casino and increasing his total. Who says IROs aren’t the gambling kind?