For longer-tenured fund managers, annual general meetings had become a well-oiled machine. Months of preparation culminated in a live event that would successfully recap the prior year, offer market and sector analysis, and provide portfolio, pipeline and firm updates. The very best AGMs could convey differentiating cues, underscoring a firm’s attention to detail and the cultural components that support performance, while demonstrating an investment edge and strong team.
In 2020, however, GPs are being forced to throw away their traditional AGM playbooks, with nearly all fund managers navigating new terrain as they attempt to transition live productions to a virtual format. While there is no one right way to do it – and LPs are indeed approaching the 2020 AGM season with open minds – certain best practices around programming, processes and preparation can deliver a virtual experience that offers the transparency and color LPs would normally expect.
- Expectations: There is no getting around it; LPs are expecting a virtual AGM. It will not be a two-day affair or require travel, but expectations are just as high as it relates to information.
- Timing: Depending on the number of funds being covered, most LPs are prepared to set aside as many as four hours; however, wrap it up in less time if possible.
- The whole show: A virtual annual general meeting is very much a full-blown AGM, complete with a fund-by-fund, deal-by-deal recaps. Start with the most recent fund and latest deals, and highlight the thesis that informed each investment, key operational initiatives, and the challenges and catalysts that will influence future returns.
- Show the team: Introduce all participants on the screen at the outset. If possible, show all partners on one screen, but keep an image of the speaker as an inset box at the bottom. It is imperative listeners know who is speaking.
- “Info-tainment”: If past AGMs featured a keynote speaker or portfolio-company CEO, investors will notice their absence.
- Mix it up: Video case studies keep the programming dynamic, while offering presenters a break to gather themselves. CEO updates can also be pre-recorded to manage uncertainty around executive presentations.
- Recess: Do not forget the breaks, the frequency of which depends on the AGM length. A good rule of thumb is to include a 10-minute break for every hour-and-a-half of programming. Some GPs use these interludes to showcase portfolio-company imagery or highlight new personnel.
- Format: The specific format depends on the chosen video-conference vendor. The most effective format emphasizes the presentation on screen, but includes a smaller window featuring either the speaker or shares a live feed of their remarks.
- Technology Ground Rules: GPs should establish participant protocols:
- No logging off during a break (to avoid subsequent delays).
- Control the visibility of the participant list.
- Silence is golden (auto-mute all LPs with their video off).
- Avoid the disruptive “you’re on mute” reminders for participants (mute all non-speaking presenters who should practice using the mute function in a seamless fashion).
- Presentation materials: To familiarize investors with the presentation, the finalized deck should be shared via a secure site well in advance.
- Proactive reminders: GPs should be proactive in alerting LPs about the date of the event via timely reminders.
- Questions: Questions should be solicited in advance, particularly inquiries that might involve metrics or harder-to-access financial data. As important, a Q&A session should conclude each major section of the AGM. Having audience members submit written questions, with a moderator or intermediary organizing and filtering inquiries, is far more seamless than allowing viewers to ask questions verbally.
- Dress the part and respect the speaker: While a “casual” tone has overtaken most of our lives during these times, it is important to “dress up” for the occasion in business attire. Also, participants should remember their assigned roles and play nice and share in the virtual world: never interrupt another speaker.
- Replay: GPs should offer investors a “playback” recording of the presentation via a secure data site to prevent improper sharing between parties that have not registered and been approved. Consider adding a directory or library so LPs can efficiently review materials that matter to them.
- Details matter: Even during virtual events – or particularly during digital programs – details matter. For instance, if the video-conference platform sounds an alert whenever someone joins the call, organizers will want to take steps to eliminate these distractions.
- Better next time: It is never too early to think about improvement. Digital surveys at the end of the event can provide instantaneous feedback for future programs. As always, participants should offer feedback around what worked and what failed; but beyond the programming, the questions should also incorporate the technical aspects of the delivery to explore new methods and platforms for future events.
- No shortcuts: While online events may not seem to have the same level of urgency as live AGMs, GPs should not take shortcuts when it comes to preparing for virtual programs.
- Designated drivers: Just as roles are assigned for live events, digital AGMs benefit from having specific professionals assume discrete duties. For instance, a designated moderator can facilitate a rhythm that keeps the presentations running at a steady pace. Someone else on staff should be tasked with “clicker” duty to advance the slides. A member of the IR staff, or CFOs in smaller firms, can intermediate audience questions. And tech experts familiar with the specific video-conference platform should be on hand to resolve any complications, quickly.
- Practice makes perfect: Finally, there is no substitute for practice. Before going live, GPs must test camera angles, lighting, and speaker and segment transitions. Create talking points to ensure alignment on key messages. Mock questions help to assess readiness to address any LP inquiries. (Be ready to answer the question you least want to receive.) At a minimum, though, fund managers should plan on doing at least two dry runs to reach a comfort level that exudes conviction and instills confidence in LPs.
At a time when communication has become more paramount, LPs are relying on GPs to provide transparency, insight and details on their investments to avoid any surprises and allow investors to make thoughtful, informed decisions around capital allocations.
Virtual AGMs, similar to live events, can provide a platform for managers to stand out from the pack and highlight the quality and culture that define their organization. Those that pay attention to the “Three Ps” of virtual events – Programming, Process, and Preparation – will find that digital alternatives, when done right, can be very effective in reinforcing LP relationships.
Lori Campana, CFA, is a partner at Monument Group, a global independent private placement agent.