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Jan 07, 2019

In the gym at 5.00 am, access to the C-suite and investor engagement: Inside IR at AmEx

The iconic lender’s head of investor relations Edmund Reese talks learning on the job, the benefits of being an internal hire and balancing corporate access with the time executives need to actually run the business

What does your typical day look like?

I’m an early riser and am in the gym by 5.00 am. Exercise keeps me sharp and helps me focus on the day ahead. After my workout, I like to review the headlines and market news for American Express and our competitors.  

It’s important for me to balance work and family so I take the time to make breakfast for my three-year-old, Steele, each morning. I am usually in the office by 7.15 am and get to work talking to NYSE traders, or conducting Nasdaq surveillance to understand the context on the stock’s current – and potential future – activity.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, I take some time to learn about the company’s business initiatives so I am either joining a business review with a leadership team, reading a presentation, discussing economics with a business leader or connecting with a member of the communications team about media activity

The rest of my time is spent collaborating with a wide variety of people throughout the company and externally. While no two days are the same in IR, you will often find me and my team meeting with sell-side analysts, top investors or prospective investors or preparing our CEO, CFO or business unit leaders for a key meeting or conference. 

Collaboration is also critical in the job. I spend a lot of time with our legal team and other leaders throughout the company working on our business narrative. 

Ten months into your new position, has the job lived up to your expectations?

Coming out of my last role as CFO for our US consumer and global lending business, I knew I would be hard pressed to land a role as fulfilling. This job has far exceeded my expectations, however. It is challenging yet rewarding work, and I get to work with some of the best people in the business.

First and foremost, I enjoy working at American Express and being a conduit to the investment community for such a respected brand. A core component of my role is to drive a full and fair valuation for the company. I take it personally and thrive on the challenge of ensuring every investor and analyst understands our performance and growth strategies. 

Second, I am privileged to work so closely with a seasoned, Fortune 100 CFO, Jeff Campbell. I’ve learned a lot from both him and our chairman and CEO Stephen Squeri. Working with them, as well as with the members of our world-class executive committee, really motivates me to excel. 

Third, I’m challenged to bring a fresh perspective to this role. I took this job right after Steve became chairman and CEO. It’s been the ideal time for me to enhance the great work that prior IR teams began and bring new thinking to this role.

What elements of your career background do you think have helped you most in this job so far? And what benefits do you think you’ve brought to the role coming in as an internal hire? 

Investors want to see growth with steady and consistent returns. As a former business CFO, my prime directive is acting on behalf of the shareholder to drive shareholder value. I have always worked on behalf of the shareholder and investor; I now get to talk directly to them to uncover their perspectives and concerns. If you look at their feedback, through perception studies and other surveys, you will see that they appreciate working with executives who have a CFO background and direct business experience.

For five years, I worked with the US consumer and global lending business, which generates more than 40 percent of the company’s earnings. As such, I have a lot of experience and financial knowledge related to some of the most significant areas of our business from co-brands to iconic products like our platinum card as well as consumer lending. These are very valuable experiences given that our shareholders are focused on understanding these strategies and initiatives.

What has been the biggest challenge in the role so far? And what has been your highlight?

Investors have an insatiable appetite for access to our executives. In a perfect world, our executives would be able to devote more time to our owners but the reality is that our institutional shareholders outnumber our executives many times over. One of my biggest challenges has been striking the right balance between facilitating meaningful and necessary interactions with investors while respecting the time our executives need to run the business. 

Overall, the nature of the work excites me. My team is small and I have an aggressive agenda so prioritizing and cross-organizational collaboration within finance and across the company is critical. I especially enjoy collaborating with business leaders and educating them about potential reactions from the Street to new products, initiatives or strategies. Other highlights include competitive analysis, working on the valuation and preparing for various economic cycles. It’s challenging work that is valued by our leadership and our board of directors, and that’s gratifying. 

Where have your energies mostly been focused over the past 10 months, and how do you expect that to change in 2019? 

I’ve been focused on the forums in which we engage with investors: earnings calls, conferences, roadshows and individual meetings. As a new CEO, Steve has been leading changes to our strategy. Integrating them into our external narrative and ensuring analysts and investors understand the changes has required a lot of my time and focus. Yet having a front-row seat to the transformation of the company has been exciting.

As we go into 2019, shareholder targeting will be a specific area of focus. My belief is that we need to further explain our strategy and historical and expected performance to various shareholder constituencies, including the growing contingency of international investors, so that American Express has a full and fair valuation. As we target shareholders better and educate them more, I expect to see additional investors appreciate and enter into the stock.

What are the top three issues investors and analysts want to talk about at the moment and how do you go about communicating around those topics? 

Analysts and investors continue to have an interest in the relationship between our revenue growth, customer engagement expenses and earnings growth. Those who are bearish on the company are primarily concerned with late-cycle loan growth and the potential, corresponding credit risk. Bullish analysts and investors think our current valuation is low and can expand if we continue to deliver consistent top-line and bottom-line growth. All of these questions and positions are valid.  

In this job, you frequently find that different constituencies have different logic and reasoning, and I appreciate that. My job isn’t a sales role where I try to convince investors one way or the other; instead, I focus my energy on determining and sharing the pertinent and relevant facts that should be considered for each of these topics. 

I spend so much time learning and preparing because nothing bothers me more than leaving a conversation and wishing I had better communicated a relevant fact. So while it might sometimes be hard for my team, I have a tendency to be a stickler for preparation. That is part of my DNA and I don’t expect it to change.

Finally, if resources were no object, what would be top of your IR wish list for the coming year? 

More access to cutting-edge technology because the manual nature of IR slows us down and doesn’t allow us to have exhaustive, fact-based insights quickly. Machine-learning analysis could be applied to a variety of information sources to help us enhance and update our narrative. It would be great to incorporate emerging technology into our work.

Garnet Roach

An award-winning journalist, Garnet Roach joined IR Magazine in October 2012, working on both the editorial and research sides of the publication. Prior to entering the world of investor relations, her freelance career covered a broad range of...