IR coffee breaks: Your virtual support group

Sep 07, 2020
When lockdown hit, Marina Calero of Powerscourt created an online forum to provide support to IROs in unprecedented times

Each Thursday at 11.00 am you can find up to 40 IR professionals logged into the IR coffee breaks meeting set up by Marina Calero, director at London and Dublin-headquartered Powerscourt, discussing everything from which virtual AGM providers have worked well to when might be a good time to restart the dividend.

Calero is a natural networker and had previously run a number of breakfast meetings, where topics included Mifid II and AGM prep. But that was in a pre-Covid-19 world. When the pandemic hit and lockdowns separated teams or left one-person IR teams working from home while grappling with truly unprecedented challenges, Calero saw there was – perhaps more than ever – a need for open discussion.

Through her consultant position at Powerscourt, Calero also acts as in-house IR for UK housebuilder McCarthy & Stone. And because of the reporting schedule at McCarthy & Stone, she had early experience of many of the challenges other IROs would come to deal with in the coming weeks.

‘At McCarthy & Stone, the financial year end is ahead of the calendar year-end used by many companies, so the first Covid-19-related statement was issued on March 18 before the UK had even locked down,’ Calero tells IR Magazine. ‘The company had to safeguard the well-being of customers and put cash preservation measures in place early on – and the cancellation of the final dividend ahead of the AGM on March 25 was one of the first steps.’ 

This also meant the company was one of the first in the UK to switch to a virtual AGM as a result of the virus ‘and to start changing all the traditional ways of doing things. You had to think very quickly and get on with it in order to reassure investors and other stakeholders,’ says Calero. ‘I’ve never seen a situation quite like that.’ 

Having dealt with the challenges early, she wanted to share her experiences with others.

To begin with, Calero invited those who had attended the AGM prep breakfast in January, plus a few others – and mostly UK housebuilders. But the group has since grown to more than 40 IROs from five countries and a number of sectors. And as the group has grown – and everyone has become somewhat accustomed to the new ways of working – the topics have evolved too. 

‘Initially it was very much, Do you give guidance? Do you do a virtual AGM? Do you have a hybrid AGM? What metrics do you report on and do you even bother with ESG?’ says Calero. ‘Now, the questions have moved on to: how do you deal with results reporting? Do you do a virtual roadshow? How do you do a presentation remotely? Do you do a video webcast? Do you focus reporting on particular lines (mainly cash position/liquidity)? Do you do targeting? There’s been this whole boom of different questions coming out.’

Sharing experiences

One of those investor relations professionals to join the IR coffee breaks calls is Conor Murtagh, director of strategy and IR at Irish homebuilder Glenveagh. ‘Everybody was working from home and we were in that horrible ether where we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. It was a fast-moving environment where different industries went through different challenges at different times,’ he recalls. ‘I suppose the main benefit of the calls was that you got to see the real-time effects of those challenges on different companies, perhaps before they came up in your particular industry.’ 

Despite largely not knowing each other, Murtagh says IROs felt comfortable sharing their experiences. ‘It wasn’t that you were sharing confidential information or anything like that – it was more that you had an experience that was in the public domain because you had put out a trading statement or you’d raised equity, for example: you had learnings from that, and you were ready to hear those from other people, too. 

‘[We were all doing that] and it was very helpful to hear what investors were looking for from different corporates so you could you could shape your own communications appropriately.’

Jenny Matthews, head of IR at Crest Nicholson, another housebuilder, agrees with Murtagh that there has also been an increased focus on ESG. As well as the early sessions being what she describes as ‘a savior for quite a lot of us because we were working from home, where you are a bit isolated, with no one to bounce ideas off’, a session featuring the head of corporate governance at Aviva gets a special mention, with Matthews describing it as ‘safe ground to talk and ask questions’.

‘He gave us insights as to what was important to Aviva and what it’s looking for. And we were able to share ideas about without thinking, Oh, don’t say that because it might not comply with what he wants and may affect the investment decisions

‘This has just been about helping each other and sharing ideas, without having any other hidden agenda. And that was a good example: even with the buy side being there, we still managed to say, This is what we’re doing, and this is what we’re seeing.’

IROs tend not to dial in every week but to drop in and out depending on their other commitments. Lili Huang, vice president of IR in Europe for hotel, gaming and leisure company NagaCorp, says that for her, some of the most useful topics were those looking at ‘withholding guidance, for example, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. 

‘We also talked about best practice in terms of how to handle questions such as: what’s the best way to communicate and help us bring confidence to our analysts and investors? That was helpful during those very difficult times, and also right now that we’re running up to the results season, it’s helpful for us to talk about how we should disclose certain types of information.’

With NagaCorp issuing a bond in June, which Huang describes as ‘a challenging time’, she couldn’t always dial in. But this, along with other Covid-19-related issues, such as the temporary suspension of operations and a greater focus on ESG, all makes for new material and new learnings that can be shared in future calls.

No agenda

There are a number of factors that makes the group work, says Calero. Firstly, participants have to be just that – participants. ‘What we don’t have are passive listeners,’ she says. ‘If you dial in, then you participate – you share or you ask questions.’ The conversations are also under the Chatham House rule to encourage people to feel comfortable in opening up. 

Despite being part of Powerscourt – a service provider – Calero stresses that there is no agenda, describing the group as a ‘support forum’. ‘It really is a forum that allows people to just be themselves and ask anything and everything they want – and then get a variety of answers for free from professionals in similar situations,’ she says.

There has been a real willingness to share, says Calero – and Murtagh, Matthews and Huang agree. ‘As we moved through this unprecedented period together – and we have the dogs and the kids in the background; we might never have met but virtually you’re in my living room – it just made it all a bit more human,’ says Calero. ‘And at the same time more relaxed, which leads to a willingness to share. The crisis has brought people closer together.’

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