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Interview with Big Law CEO. Company pioneering investor relations websites in Zimbabwe

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Big Law

Big Law Some two weeks ago, we got pointed to the news that AICO Africa Limited had announced an online investor relations initiative.  AICO is listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange the holding company of Seed Co Limited, Olivine Industries and the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe Limited. Looking at the AICO website right now, you can easily see the value of the online investor relations concept itself as a PR/IR tool; no fancy design, just a lot of useful information neatly packaged.

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This new initiative is being carried out by Big Law Management Consultants. The company is doing similar work for other listed companies in Zimbabwe and the region. Some of their clients include Innscor, Econet Wireless, African Sun, Edgars Stores, OK Zimbabwe, FBC and Truworths.

We contacted the Big Law CEO, Rob Strangroom, to get some information about the company and the work they do. Big Law is one of the few companies working on a problem that is widespread in Zim and other similar countries. The problem is that companies, listed or not, don’t seem to see the power of the internet as a business platform even as internet penetration increases rapidly across the continent.

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Below is a question and answer we did with Rob Stangroom. He discusses the whole online investor relations concept. How Big Law started and how it has worked out. There are a couple of tips in there as well for business executives, PR and Web professionals.

Big Law’s history?

Big Law was founded by Graham Young, a computer programmer and was founded by me a CA and Tafadzwa Manhindi – from a banking background. From a capital markets advisory background I realised how little information there was online on listed companies – stock exchanges weren’t delivering and neither were brokers and neither were portals that purported to have comprehensive timely information. With the oft repeated statements of how much potential Africa had from an investment perspective I was surprised that no-one was actively promoting investment online. Whose responsibility was it?

The answer is listed companies’ as part of their corporate governance obligations:-

This quote from Standard Boardroom Practice, prepared by the Institute of Directors, London, revised 1971 is still appropriate (or perhaps more appropriate) in modern times:

“Although the process of encouraging shareholders to take an interest in the affairs of the company may be a rather slow one, directors should not be discouraged. It is their duty to make the maximum use of the methods open to them of keeping the shareholders informed.”

But what motivates listed company directors to take these governance issues seriously? Not a lot because they are not aware that “the methods open to them of keeping shareholders informed” now includes the Internet – something they don’t understand – too many grey hairs + they are very busy. Just look at the stats. The capital market regulators are similarly unable to take the online agenda and make it a priority or incorporate it into the rules. In the absence of liquid markets, stockbrokers don’t have the resources to make full information available either. So it’s up to listed companies to decide what to do to promote investment – after all they have obligations to do so so it would seem like an easy decision. But it’s not.

Take my survey if you have not and you will get some insight into the issues

The key issue though is that with the proper software it is easy to manage communication with retail investors and stakeholders – it’s this aspect that saves time and money and makes the process automated low cost and therefore worthwhile. It’s what you call a “retail shareholder” strategy but one that also benefits institutional shareholders since they also have better access to information.

What’s would you say is the Big Law’s core product/service? What did AIC bring to the market and how has this fared?

Our core service is to ensure that comprehensive, timely investment information is published online to enable investors both local and foreign to make informed investment decisions. We have brought awareness of best practices globally to the market and I can say that without a doubt our clients have the best investor relations websites of any stock market in sub-Saharan Africa – this is because they are connecting individually with investors and perpetuating a secure two way relationship – just register on one of our client sites e.g. Seedco, to see the communications module each and every registrant gets

Big Law has corporate clients in Zim, Malawi, Botswana and Zambia. What was the experience expanding into these markets? What were the major setbacks doing so? 

Major setbacks are that executives don’t know that they don’t know. Raising awareness of the benefits of communicating responsibly online is very time consuming and costly. A good website will generate very meaningful commercial feedback and enhance corporate reputation.

Executives don’t take smaller investors seriously because they think that it’s costly and time consuming to engage them. With an effectively structured website this is not true. Communication is automated but intervention is possible when needed. Shareholders are also potential customers, suppliers, employees etc… stakeholders if you were, so responsible communication to everyone and anyone online grows “corporate reputation”. This is what you call integrated communication and it’s possible because the Internet has changed the World making information instant to everyone

Major milestones/achievement made in recent months and since founding (e.g. reaching a certain number of clients, new markets, new methods…)

We are launching the website of a prominent stockbroker shortly which will innovatively disseminate investment data on our clients. We professionally podcasted the whole analyst presentation of AICO and Seedco. We launched Edgars new website – a good mix of a corporate website and an investor relations website

Our major milestone can be summarised in this feedback from a global investment bank

Hello,
By way of introduction, my name is <>, and I work at Deutsche Bank providing investor relations guidance and information on global best-practices to companies that have ADR and GDR programs with us. I just wanted to say I saw your new website, and the Investor Relations section is terrific! I spend a lot of time working with companies from emerging markets and promoting the value of a comprehensive, informative, and well-designed and organized website and investor relations sub-section as a major tool in attracting and keeping international institutional investors. It is great to see you are ahead of the curve, I’m really impressed!

Which companies are your competition locally and on the continent?

On the investor relations side we are unique because we fulfill a specific niche – we are not a website company and not a typical PR firm – we are an online communications consultancy concentrating on the basics – timely, comprehensive information. We have branched out to corporate websites as a logical extension to what we do but it’s not our core business

I guess the typical PR companies and typical website companies are our competition but the PR side is weak online and the website companies weak on PR – there’s space for a company in between and we are that company

What differentiates your product from competing services on the market?

It’s holistic – it’s not about the website, it’s about how our clients use it and that’s where we are actively involved on an ongoing basis in appraising that. I have a very strong financial sector background and my partner Graham has a very strong database and programming background. Even though we sign up clients, we concentrate on improving awareness at all times – this is no different to any investor relations department overseas – the core objective of an IR officer is to ensure that investor relations is on the agenda for the CEO and the board

What is your view on the readiness of companies to use the internet as a platform for investor relations and attracting new investment?

There are significant barriers – the cost of the internet etc but penetration is high and growing and if costs come down there will be explosive growth. Those companies starting to use the internet effectively early on will benefit when this growth kicks in. They will also be wiser as these tools evolve over time.

On the investor relations side executives don’t appreciate that without information and access to management investors do not even consider investment – it does not matter how bad things may seem, companies need to provide the facts and let the investor decide – at least he will be able to assess risks and not be in the dark.

No facts = maximum risk assessment – not even on the agenda. Some facts means a qualified risk assessment + the listed company is at least on the radar of the investor. Listed companies need to treat shareholders equally – all of them and this point is frequently overlooked.

However an example here of how local companies are realising the advantages :

Analyst presentations are where all of the key questions are asked of management. Foreign investors effectively do not have access to the raw information of these fora. AICO and Seedco are the first listed companies to professionally podcast their whole investor presentation including the q and a section. In developed markets this is the defacto (as required by regulation – here the regulation does not apply) so here our services our world class and up with best practices worldwide. If companies want to be serious about promoting investment then they have to adopt best practices worldwide. This is so much appreciated by foreign investors

Any major setbacks getting corporate clients to appreciate the value of the service?

The underlying state of the listed companies in Zimbabwe – many have going concern issues and are seriously struggling – but the catch 22 is that they need investment – yes  a website will not necessarily find investors but it only takes one investor to change the fortunes of a listed company so why not “use all the channels available”. Publish all of the information online and enable investors to make educated assessments and at least put companies on investors’ radar

Few listed companies take their communication corporate governance obligations seriously, few realise that communicating with investors benefits all areas of business

What are your views on social media as a platform for investor relations? How can (listed and not) use platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook as platforms for business? Are local companies using these tools effectively?

Facebook; approach with caution. Companies need to have the underlying integrity to communicate and content to communicate and the ability to respond immediately and honestly to the market. Get this right and then the platforms are highly recommended but start with the basics and learn as you go along. Include senior management right from the start otherwise there is no buy in.

How has been the feedback from the clients?

Excellent. Directors can rest in peace that their communications use all available channels and that their core corporate governance obligations (the wishy washy stuff that nobody understands – e.g. listed companies should communicate responsibly with the market). For some of our brand strong clients the commercial value of the feedback through our website has been very valuable – business deals etc.

Any major plans for the coming months, year?

– Promote awareness of the need for online investor relations in Zimbabwe

– Promote use of social media in investor relations more

– Use stockbrokers websites to effectively market our client investment stories

– Try to get listed subsidiaries of listed holding companies like to take their online investor relations seriously. Why is it that holding companies overseas treat investors to the best online investor relations but in Africa they don’t – same group, same corporate governance practices. Why is the value of an investor in Africa worth less than in the UK?

– As above for listed companies that are dual-listed – eg Hwange,

– Promote podcasts as a key reporting and transparency tool – this has to be adopted by listed companies in Zimbabwe if they want to be taken seriously then they have to get up to speed

– We are launching a unique website product for estate agents

– We are launching a professional website product for small business


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