Many executives are poised to leave the anonymity
of private ownership – but will their IPO message
be clear and convincing?
“A rude and brutal experience” is how one CEO summed up the Initial Public Offering (IPO) process after the successful float of his medium-sized engineering company. His bruised reaction was not untypical – few senior executives go through more than one IPO in their career and not surprisingly most are unprepared for the ordeal. Others mistakenly assume that little can be done to influence the outcome, aside from one-on-one meetings with a few dozen institutional investors.
On the contrary, media commentary and analysis is a key source of information among investors during an IPO – and clear communication really matters.
Many CEOs equally start with a hesitant mindset. “The press is going to write about me anyway whether I like it or not” is a typical reaction. “They will highlight my personal wealth and for ever after the only account of the IPO available to staff, friends, trade partners and investors will be what was in the newspapers.”
While this may all be true, the magic dust of a good communications strategy during an IPO should in our view be anything but defensive. Based on our experience of working with companies over several recent cycles, we believe executives need to speak with conviction, maintaining an outward, proselytizing mindset while not losing sight of the occasional need to circle the wagons (see Fig.1 over page).
A company should start by asking itself how the story will be heard in a newsroom and on a trading floor? In the editor’s conference, when the sector correspondent has 45 seconds to pitch for space in that day’s paper, how will that correspondent sum up the story as “must-read”? Or, on the first day of trading in the stock, what are the dozen or so words that the sales team will scribble down at the analysts’ early morning briefing which will signal “buy now, don’t wait.” These are not simplistic questions. They get at the quintessence of an IPO investment story. Why is it unique? Where is the growth?
Paradoxically, the answer to the first question may not be specific to the company – it could be the appeal of the sector. The idea that their fortunes are inextricably linked to competitors and rivals occasionally comes as a surprise to management teams – especially founders. But a “cleantech” or renewable energy company contemplating an IPO in the current environment, for example, will need to demonstrate the wider attractions of its industry before focusing on its own story.
Self-evidently the business must have a history of success which it should relate in its own words. Cut away the dense undergrowth of business school jargon, “banker-speak” and legalese and return the narrative to the language of the management team. The story is at its most compelling when at its most natural – as if the Chief Executive were explaining it at the lunch table for the first time. Key facts must tumble compellingly out of a story that is too good to miss.
The message for which all the rest can be abandoned in moments of stress is around growth and the “upside.” Of course all members of an advisory team acknowledge this, but they often lose sight of its overwhelming strength when it is crowded out by other considerations. Ten years after listening to a Harvard finance professor outline the principles of corporate finance I have not forgotten his unambiguous declaration that “the function of equity is to be risk capital, and growth is its only justification.”
The management team may have an outstanding three hour pitch – but it also needs a two minute version; useful for investors, indispensable for hard-pressed correspondents. An IPO furnishes journalists with the justification to examine a company’s plans, so a robust articulation of what management will do with the proceeds should convince all hearers of the company’s ambition.