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Best way to prep for an earnings call?

I'm VP of Finance for a mid-sized public company. We are w/o CFO at the moment and I'm "running", or at least preparing the CEO, for an upcoming earnings call. Does anyone have suggestions as to content, people and process to ensure that I nail this? Thank you.

Answers

Topic Expert
Christie Jahn
Title: CFO
Company: Prime Investments & Development
(CFO, Prime Investments & Development) |

Earnings calls for publicly traded firms are recorded and available online. We are an agent for US Cellular and each quarter I present our financial KPIs against there's so I have industry averages to benchmark how we are doing in the same areas. I registered through a company called seekingalpha.com. I would recommend searching for a similar company or see if you can locate your past CFO's presentation.

Topic Expert
Phyllis Proffer
Title: Owner, Investor Relations Counselor
Company: The Heights Company, LLC
(Owner, Investor Relations Counselor, The Heights Company, LLC) |

Working without a CFO happened only once in my career while I was the VP of strategic planning and investor relations. We were without a fully dedicated CFO for nearly ten months. The controller and I worked closely together to fill the void. This could be a great opportunity for you and it my hope the following helps.

My comments are broad since the timing of your release and the extent of your staffing is unknown. Just remember that communications is cumulative and respect what your company has already told the investment community in previous earnings calls, news releases, SEC filings, slide presentations, and one-on-one meetings. It would also be to your advantage to read the transcripts or listen to previous earnings conference calls of companies in your peer group.

The earnings conference call is an opportunity to summarize the events of the quarter and the progress the company is making. The process and content are at the discretion of the CEO, and most of the CEOs I have worked with are open to well-thought-out suggestions and recommendations.

In my experience, the earnings call is not a marketing opportunity nor is it all about historical results. The investment community is seeking information which will help them predict future results. Investors also want to know what executive management believes important and where they are focusing their time. The challenge is to provide information in the spirit of full disclosure without providing valuable information to your competitors.

Process for Developing Content

I always start my earnings call prep with a comparison of the results achieved this quarter and year-to-date with the financial results for the same time period in the previous year. It would be prudent to do this several weeks in advance of the earnings release date or as soon as practical. The numbers may not be final, but any shifts would be few and/or insignificant; therefore, easy to update with minor modifications to the content. As controller, the timing of this analysis will be easy for you to determine.

My suggestion is to perform this variance analysis for all of the financial statements you plan to include with the earnings release. It is my practice to include the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement with all earnings releases. However, I only perform a line-item comparison on the income statement and look for significant variances to call out on the balance sheet and the cash flow statement.

Create an outline summarizing the analysis and explanation of the variances between this quarter and year-to-date with the same period the previous year in preparation for your initial discussion with the CEO. Some of the variances will be seasonal depending on the business or services your company provides and easy to explain. Other variances will require more research, which will give you a good indication as to who to involve in the process. The objective is to provide a link between operating performance and financial results.

After meeting with your CEO and incorporating his/her comments, the outline will be used to develop the earnings release, conference call script and MD&A in the 10-Q or 10-K. This assures continuity in your public disclosures. I also learned over the years that discussing the outline with the CEO in advance of writing the copy saved an incredible amount of time in developing and editing the release, conference call script, MD&A, and Q&A document.

A more sophisticated outline will include some directional comments as to whether the variances will increase, remain flat or decline in the future. You will want to work with legal counsel about preparing forward-looking information to make sure it is within your disclosure policy. You shouldn’t feel compelled to make projections for each line item or try to estimate future increases or decreases in basis points. External influences could impact future results.

If your management team has decided to provide future outlook, directional comments are an opportunity to manage expectations and/or explain a change in the company’s outlook.

Be careful to avoid being overly promotional in your discussion of variances. In other words, don’t limit your comments to emphasizing the positive while avoiding a discussion of the negative. The investment community can be resilient and flexible if given enough time to adjust. The earnings conference call is a wonderful opportunity to build credibility by discussing all variances equally, objectively and comprehensively.

Additional information about content is available on a couple of blogs I wrote for publication on Proformative: Promoting a Long Term View During Earnings Season and Maintaining Credibility in a Downturn. There is also material on The Heights’ web site which could be useful to you.

Timetable

Allow at least three drafting sessions in the form of group meetings to review and gather comments on drafts of the earnings release and conference call script. It isn’t unusual for companies to rely on six or more drafting sessions. This is a cultural phenomenon and varies greatly from one company to the next. Use what you know about your company’s culture to plan the drafting sessions and get the meetings on the calendars of the appropriate people starting with the CEO.

At the minimum, the people who should be involved in addition to you and the CEO are corporate communications or public relations, investor relations and legal counsel. In the past, I have involved other members of the executive team such as COO, CIO, etc. Each company is different and involvement in the drafting sessions is usually at the discretion of the CEO. Typically, suggestions are usually welcomed.

The Board of Directors Finance Committee will need to review the earnings release in advance of its distribution on one of the wire services. As controller, I’m assuming you have participated in these Board committee sessions previously as well as reviews with your public accounting firm.

Allow at least one practice session for the CEO and you to read the actual earnings conference call script and two to three sessions to prepare for the question and answer section of the earnings call. The same executives involved in the drafting session should be involved in developing questions and answers and preparing the CEO for the call.

Most companies maintain an ongoing Q&A document; however, I continue to be surprised by how many companies do not. If your company has such a document, it would be helpful for you to review it prior to drafting or directing the drafting of the earnings release, conference call script and Q&A document. By doing so, you will have the opportunity to learn more about any current concerns or confusion among your shareholders. You have the opportunity to incorporate information into the upcoming earnings release and/or conference call script which could resolve concerns or confusion. It will help you better prep your CEO to know where the hot buttons are located and give you time to formulate a recommendation.

Logistics

Reserve the time and the date of the earnings call with a conference call provider. If you need help identifying resources, please contact me directly. I have a service provider who I would highly recommend after relying on them for twenty years or so.

If you are working with an outside firm to host your IR web site, let them know the time and date of the call in preparation for the webcast of the live call. Do not post the date and time of the earnings call on your web site until the following news release is distributed.

Work with your legal counsel to determine the timing of the news release announcing the time and date of the earnings call and instructions as to how to access the call. This release should occur at least one week prior to the call. Changing the date of an earnings conference call after it has been announced can be misperceived by the investment community, so be thoughtful about how far in advance you release this information.

It is my practice to send invitations to the earnings conference call to the financial community. Each company is different and some publicize the event on several services. Please contact me directly if you would like to discuss further.

On the actual day of the earnings release, the conference call should not begin until the earnings release crosses the wire and the 8-K is filed with the SEC. With good service providers and advance planning, this takes minutes to achieve on the day earnings are released.

My practice is to submit the earnings release to my newswire service provider one day in advance of the release date. However, this doesn’t work if last minute changes have become common practice at your company. It takes several quarters to move a company toward finalizing the draft the day before the release rather than minutes before its release. In addition, you will need to determine the reliability of your wire service provider to hold the release confidential until your designated time for release. I have used PRNewswire for more than thirty years and have never experienced accidental, premature release of information. The 8-K should also be prepared in advance so it can be released quickly at the proper time.

Determine in advance who will field the follow-up questions that occur after the earnings conference call concludes. Will you sit in with the CEO to take these calls? Should the follow-up telephone calls start with you? You will need to give instructions on whom to call for follow-up questions at the end of the earnings conference call due to the absence of your CFO. Also, it may be helpful for you to review the sample disclosure policy on my web site.

Summary

I cannot over emphasize the importance of developing and practicing Q&A in preparation for an earnings conference call.

Earnings conference calls have been common practice during the last 20 years or so; however, participants on the call have changed. In the beginning, both the buy side and the sell side participated in the calls and asked questions. Today, most of the questions are asked by sell side brokerage research analysts who publish coverage on your company. This can be misleading on two fronts.

Even though your institutional shareholders do not ask questions and may not have dialed into the actual live call, the buy side is very interested in the content of the earnings conference call. They are either listening to the webcast or plan to read the transcript or listen to the archive at a time they can dedicate their full attention.

The sell side’s perspective for participating in earnings conference calls are frequently different than your institutional shareholders. Your holders are also their clients. Some sell side analysts use earnings conference calls to justify their assumptions and financial models. You can help your CEO prepare in advance by becoming familiar with the research and financial models previously published on your company. This analysis of sell side perceptions will help you develop explanations of variances from one year to the next in such a way to possibly avoid obvious questions, or at the very least, prepare answers for questions you know you will receive during Q&A on the live call.

Please keep in mind that opinions expressed by the sell side on an earnings conference call may not reflect the opinions of the buy side who comprise your existing and prospective institutional shareholder base. However, how you or your CEO handle those opinions in the form of responding to a question will influence the buy side’s opinions of your company and its management team.

If you have questions or need additional help, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Philip Russell
Title: CFO
Company: FCB Homes
(CFO, FCB Homes) |

You should go to Seeking Alpha and look at some conference call transcripts of some Large Publicly Traded companies. You will note that at the beginning that the mention something to the effect of ... parts of this conversation are covered by the Safe Harbor provision and we will mention certain forward looking statements as part of the discussion today. You should have your legal representative come up with language that addresses this.

Good luck,

Philip

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