Restoring Wall Street's Confidence in a Midwest Technology Darling
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
CEO

Restoring Wall Street's Confidence in a Midwest Technology Darling

Great Plains is an example of a company who took its punches, fought back and came out on top thanks to a well-integrated public relations/investor relations program executed by FitzGerald Communications.

Paul Holmes

 

Great Plains Software (Nasdaq: GPSI) is a global provider of enterprise-wide e-business solutions for the midmarket. The company has enjoyed a strong track record of growth, recording 19 consecutive years of revenue growth and six consecutive years of profitability. In a year where companies’ stock prices soared and dropped, the name of the game was anyone’s guess.  However, a few select were able to come out on top.  They did this by not relying solely on financials and stock price, but by leveraging the power of their corporate brand, their products and their people.  Those who could share with others what made them so great – management style, technology leadership, cultural differences – were able to weather the storm.  Great Plains is an example of a company who took its punches, fought back and came out on top thanks to a well-integrated public relations/investor relations program executed by FitzGerald Communications.

CHALLENGES

The market for technology stocks in the spring of 2000 marked a sharp contrast to Wall Street’s enthusiasm for tech issues during 1999.  During April alone, the Nasdaq was down more than 15 percent, with few signs of recovery as the market headed into the historically slow summer months.  

Although Great Plains’ stock fared well during the spring in comparison to its peers, the company found itself obligated to preannounce its financial results for a weaker-than-expected fourth quarter ended May 31, 2000.  During the quarter, the company experienced a slower than expected post-Y2K sales recovery.  Predictably, financial institutions such as Chase H&Q reduced estimates following the pre-announcement.   In short, Great Plains was presented with a significant communications challenge: To clearly communicate the negative results of the fourth quarter, rapidly rebuild investor confidence and articulate the company’s future prospects during a difficult market environment.  

Key to accomplishing this goal was the need to portray a “full circle” image of Great Plains.  The company needed to showcase more than just financials if it wanted to rise above its peers.  Highlighting the management team and its management style, new product development and cultural aspects were critical success factors in raising Great Plains above the noise.

PLANNING AND OBJECTIVES

Partnering with Great Plains, FitzGerald Communications leveraged the integrated communications expertise of its public relations and investor relations professionals and assembled the program elements needed to address the challenges.  The team identified three primary objectives: 

Restore investor confidence in Great Plains

Proactively outline the negative drivers of the fourth quarter and communicate evidence of improvement in the subsequent quarter

Build additional awareness among investors through outreach to the business and financial press -- focus beyond just company financials

The first step in implementing the program was to work with Great Plains on the pre-announcement of its fourth quarter results and announcement of the actual results.  Understanding elements critical to Wall Street in a pre-announcement, the FitzGerald team worked with the company on crafting a release that answered:

·  What was the problem? 

·  How will it affect the quarter and long-term financials?  

·  What is the company going to do about the problem?  

Key messages developed by the FitzGerald team set the expectation for the continued strength of the company’s products and recognition of the main influencer of the quarter (Y2K) as a short-term problem in Great Plains’ growth strategy.

COMPANY EXECUTION

The FitzGerald team then initiated its program to broaden the company’s visibility among key Wall Street investors by honing and prioritizing a target list of top-tier business and financial media outlets.  Looking to highlight the management team and its management style, new product development and cultural aspects of the company, FitzGerald and Great Plains outlined an aggressive PR strategy. Outreach commenced immediately following the earnings announcement with pitches focused on reinforcing Great Plains’ business, financial, technical and cultural differentiators to capture the Street’s attention and provide recognition of Great Plains as a long term market leader.

First was a day-after interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” where Chairman and CEO Doug Burgum got squarely in front of the camera to address the tough financial issues at a time when most other CEOs would have hidden from the critics.

The second tactic was to “stay on course” by announcing a series of positive momentum releases, notably Great Plains’ next release of its flagship products.  The new products added e-commerce capabilities, coupled with new Internet and Web-enabled functionality.  The most aggressive release in company history, the product news garnered coverage across the key trade press (see attached coverage) to showcase that Great Plains was still proven in its technology.

Lastly, FitzGerald recognized it was necessary to not only highlight “cool” factiods on Great Plains’ unique corporate culture, including highlighting the people who make up the company. Looking for the true “pioneer” of the great plains, Fortune magazine profiled team member Tim Thiel of as part of a sabbatical trend feature article.

Back to the financials.  Media outreach continued through the summer and fall months leading up to the close of the first quarter 2001 and the announcement of results.  In preparation for the first quarter announcement, FitzGerald provided counsel and support to Great Plains, which resulted in the creation of a set of key messages that supported the expectations of investors.  Great Plains’ Q1 financial results exceeded anticipated revenue and earnings targets, and reflected the return of the company’s revenue growth rates in light of prior Y2K challenges.  The financial turn around was beginning, with investors having more insight into the company’s financials, management style and culture.

Profiling the management team and management style of Great Plains was the final strategy designed to further enhance investor faith in the company. The team targeted The Wall Street Journal to underscore CEO Burgum’s management leadership.  Again, the goal was to draw attention to the company’s culture and management style, and away from the poor Q4 numbers, portraying a softer side of the company.  Making its way “In the Lead,” Burgum’s unique and historical management style was captured on the front page of the Journal’s widely-read Marketplace section.

RESULTS

Wall Street continues to show its confidence in the company, bringing Great Plains’ stock price to levels today well above those preceding the pre-announcement, despite the market downdraft significantly impacting nearly every other company in the technology sector. FitzGerald’s outreach to the media resulted in coverage in such high profile outlets as CNBC, Fortune, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal (see attached coverage).
The final feather in Great Plains’ cap happened at the end of December when Microsoft announced its intent to acquire the company. The deal value topped $1.1 billion based on Great Plains’ market leadership, management prowess, strong reseller channel and corporate culture.  In a market where deal values have been going down and acquisitions/mergers slowing, it was the Great Plains image that enabled the company to retain its value and allure to potential suitors.

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