NIRI 2017: Road to the C-Suite from the IR Seat

Orlando in June didn’t disappoint.

The 100% humidity and occasional thunderstorms kept the lazy river at the JW Marriott empty and the NIRI National Conference full as participants enjoyed a strong program of speakers and topics on a broad range of IR issues.

As part of the event, Ipreo was proud to host a session for IROs looking at their career progression. “From IR to the C-Suite” featured two former IROs that have seen their careers translate effectively into roles in the CFO’s chair.

NIRI, investor relations, ipreo, market data, IR, c-suite, technology, ipreoWith Kevin Roy, managing director of Ipreo’s Global Markets Intelligence group, moderating, attendees got to follow the career progression of two leaders. Howard Thill has recently taken the CFO seat at small-cap oil & gas producer Sanchez Energy, bringing experience from a varied 35-year career in the energy business (almost half in IR), including stops at Phillips Petroleum, Marathon Oil, and Devon Energy. Izzy Dawood is currently CFO of Santander Consumer USA in Dallas but has also spend time in investor relations and corporate development roles at BNY Mellon and Wachovia over a 20+ year career.

Kevin asked Howard and Izzy for their thoughts on the transition to the CFO role, the best ways to broaden their experiences, and even how to get through the tough times when there aren’t any easy answers.

Below, Brian Matt, Ipreo’s Director and Global Head of Strategy and Innovation, recaps a few themes that arose in the discussion:

  1. To progress in your career, never stop the learning process. Both Izzy and Howard have made sure to branch out in different directions. Izzy noted that being the one person in every situation who can “take on more” is a great way to make sure new opportunities come your way, and he’s followed that philosophy through a number of different roles in financial services. Howard spent his early career in operations and finance, noting that time he spent traveling internationally was valuable, and while he never had the opportunity to live internationally, “going overseas is a great segue into advancement – it shows your dedication and ability to adapt.” Further, he picked up additional responsibilities outside IR, including in the corporate communications and government affairs.
  2. The IRO chair is an ideal way to get a seat at the table… Howard said he learned early on that it was as important to bring shareholders’ views inside the company as it was to deliver the company’s message to the shareholders. Izzy saw the most important aspect of his time in IR as being the single function that hears from all of the company’s constituents (management, board, investors) and can synthesize an unbiased view of the company by bringing all of their views together. At Marathon, Howard’s role as the voice of shareholders meant he attended every board meeting to help bring this perspective.
  3. …and activism has elevated IR’s position within the company. Izzy noted that in IR, “you’re effectively ‘the internal activist,’” and it’s important for you to understand how activists model the company, right or wrong, as well as the areas wherein they may have valuable ideas. Izzy suggested “[being] your own analyst. If IR can go through the same process of modeling out earnings with all the information that an investor has,” then IR is truly doing a good job.
  4. There are some things you can say to management, and some things you can’t… Howard and Izzy both agreed that as an IRO, you can tell management just about anything – but you do have to be very careful to separate fact from opinion, and how it fits in context to the company.
  5. …and, conversely, there are some things you don’t know until you’re in the CFO chair. “Every number has a story, and sometimes there are multiple stories,” was one way to fit to Izzy’s “trust but verify” theme of a CFO that has to understand all the numbers, and further, separate the constants from the variables. Even when things don’t go so well, a CFO has to be prepared, not be defensive, and acknowledge if there are issues.
  6. The CFO’s role is all about time management… Izzy shared an anecdote about viewing the to-do list on the CFO’s desk as a 2×2 grid – with one axis as “Urgent vs. Not Urgent”, and the other “Important vs. Not Important.” While CFOs will always have a full set of “urgent” issues to deal with (either “important” or “not important”), it’s paramount to retain focus on the issues that are “not urgent and important” – attacking long-term goals, not just fighting fires.
  7. …meaning IR can be a catalyst for change. IROs can be a strong resource to the C-level in this vein, by, as Howard put it: “never bringing a problem to your boss for which you haven’t thought through a solution.” Often this solution, coming from an IRO that knows the business and the industry while in parallel with what investors think, becomes the best move for management to make.

IR as a profession has made consistent strides throughout its history, as we see more C-level executives with IR experience leading today’s largest companies. This pipeline is bound to expand as more former IROs see success in their new roles – a feedback loop that benefits all of those sitting in the IR chair yesterday, today, and tomorrow.