World’s biggest IR conference kicks off in Florida

The numbers are up. The buzz is positive. The mood is one of relief and some amount of celebration: ‘We made it through another year. We made it through Q1 and the annual meeting. We made it to another NIRI conference.’

The world’s biggest gathering of IR professionals got underway yesterday, with around 1,300 IROs and their service providers converging on Orlando, Florida for NIRI’s annual conference. The number is up compared to last year’s conference, which itself showed a firm uptick compared to 2009 when attendance took a hard hit amid the financial crisis.

In the opening session this morning, NIRI CEO Jeff Morgan pointed out that 15 per cent of this year’s conference-goers are from outside the US, representing every continent except Antarctica. ‘You’re here to make sure you understand US investment practices because there’s so much investment capital in the US,’ he said.

The degree of non-US interest in NIRI points to one prong in the organisation’s growth strategy. Morgan revealed that this fall NIRI will launch a global IR practices seminar for non-US IROs wanting to learn how IR is done in the US. The first one will take place in Miami.

NIRI has been doing a strategic organisation review, explained NIRI chairman Doug Wilburne, VP of IR at Textron. So far he has overseen phone interviews with around 200 people and an interactive blog he called an online ‘jam session’. In a special session yesterday, around 70 volunteer advisors hashed out strategy. ‘What decisions and changes should we make now to prepare ourselves for the future?’ Wilburne summed up.

Morgan and Wilburne divulged how NIRI can grow not only by tapping the new wave of IPOs for new members, but by recruiting private companies that may one day go public. They have not traditionally joined, but there’s nothing stopping NIRI from getting them to, Morgan said.

NIRI is also considering whether to offer corporate memberships, opening the way to involving other executives such as CEOs and CFOs and serving them with information.

Morgan described some of the ways NIRI is making sure it gets heard on regulatory issues. ‘Dodd-Frank got its inertia moving and everyone felt it in their companies,’ he pointed out.

On the advocacy front, NIRI answered the SEC’s call for fixes to proxy mechanics with strong suggestions for reform. ‘Unfortunately, because of Dodd-Frank, the SEC has sort of put that off until next year. But it will come back.’

In the immediate future, NIRI will send a comment letter to the SEC next week, pushing for more transparency around short-selling. With a position Morgan acknowledged as ‘extreme’, NIRI is asking for significant public information around stock lending as well as short-selling.

At one point in this morning’s session, Wilburne led applause for Morgan and his staff, congratulating them on the job they’ve done seeing NIRI through the financial crisis and an organizational transformation. Indeed, Morgan has proven to be an important advocate for IROs as well as a strong leader of an industry association.

Wilburne, for his part, seems to be in his element, combining entertainment with leadership. At an awards dinner on Saturday for local NIRI chapters, he staged a ‘Saturday NIRI live’ skit, and tonight he will play saxophone with the NIRI band and improv group in IR the musical.

[Article by Neil Stewart, IR magazine]

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