Find time for those closest to you
I spend a lot of time outside of work with friends and colleagues; going out, playing or watching sport, going to the cinema. But do I spend as much quality time as I should with my family? If you ask my Mum, she will say no.
The same accusation could be thrown at many companies: they spend a lot of time with customers and potential targets – the people they want to use their products in exchange for their cash. But stop and think for a second about how companies interact with their providers of finance – those investors that companies go to rarely, asking them to maintain belief in the business and the company’s management, and asking them for money in exchange for a share of ownership or a loan repayment arrangement. Do companies spend enough quality time with their providers of finance?
Grant Thornton research of the UK FTSE 350 market shows that the average annual report now stands at over 500 or approximately 300,000 words. Typically, about half that information is historical financial data. The rest is generally a corporate governance statement, a CSR statement, notes from the Chairman and various Board committees, and a description of how the company’s business segments have performed.
Historical financial data is an absolute bedrock, a cornerstone, fundamental. But it is not enough, not on its own. And standalone statements about a company’s commitment to social responsibility convey the impression that societal contribution is an afterthought, rather than embedded within corporate values and daily decision making processes. Large UK companies provide shareholders with limited information on risk management and internal control, while only 27% of the FTSE 350 provide real insight into how they review the effectiveness of their systems of internal control. The vast majority fail to demonstrate the link between their business model, future plans, strategy to implement those plans, and key risks.
Reporting data in distinct sections of the annual report conveys the impression that the company is run in silos (whether it is or not). It would be much better to apply the principles of Integrated Reporting for internal and external reporting purposes, which will, in turn, better inform the decision making process.
Show you care
Some company information changes from year to year but some – called standing information – does not. It should remain accessible for reference by those providers of finance who value it and publicly available for people who are new to your company, but most investors do not need to see this every year. High value or periodic information should not become lost in standing information.
And one size does not fit all. Providing one bank of data effectively says to your providers of finance: here is the data I am giving you, now get on with it. It is not an impression you would want to leave with your customers, so treat your providers of finance with the same respect. The irony of damaging your valuable corporate reputation through the very channel that seeks to enhance that reputation should not be lost on any CEO. Consider providing this information at three levels: high level messages for all and full granular data for those who want to drill right down, and a third level somewhere in the middle.
It’s good to listen
My best customer experiences come when companies go out of their way to help; they deal with requests or complaints in a prompt, respectful manner. This is not my experience of corporate reporting however. Often the company talks a lot but does very little listening to its providers of finance. There is at times a real risk that companies and their providers of finance are talking past each other, which is unhealthy for both parties.
The idea of shareholder stewardship – the notion that shareholders engage in dialogue with management about the issues that are important to them – is gaining traction across Europe. If that dialogue is to be rich in content, foster mutual understanding, and ultimately help the capital markets become more efficient then the willingness on the part of shareholders to engage must be matched by the company’s commitment to transparent and high quality communications to form the basis of that dialogue.
Your corporate reporting is a reflection of your company. Give more thought to what you say publicly about your company, and how you say it. Show your providers of finance that you care. It is likely to improve your corporate relationships. And find a little more time for your family. Next time we go to visit my Mum I’ll see if I can turn the usual lunch into a full weekend.
Nick Jeffrey is a director of public policy at Grant Thornton.