Paul Holmes 22 May 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
Once a high flying growth company, posting annual growth of 25% or better, Blyth is in transition to slowing more moderate growth. As the communications program began Blyth also faced the challenges of being a little known company in a business -- manufacturing scented candles -- which many investors viewed as old economy or worse yet a passing fad. At the same time, the stock market in 2000 was fixated on the dot com boom and the seemingly limited less opportunity of the new economy and technology companies – everything Blyth was not.
The Golin/Harris approach to building a communications effort for Blyth began with an extensive research effort. To determine analyst views of the company and key issues we reviewed past communications and analyst reports. Then to establish a baseline we implemented a unique piece of Wall Street research. We conducted a 25 question quantitative/qualitative study of the key analysts and investors following Blyth to determine their views at the start of the program as well as to identify key concerns about the company. A 90 page report detailed the findings, including statistical and correlation analysis of the quantitative data, and developed recommendations for the program.
The research findings including the perception study defined the communications objectives and strategies for the company. Key among the issues that were identified was growth expectations for the business that did not match management's projections, a lack of understanding of the business drivers, concerns about the branding, marketing, R&D and management strengths of the company, limited visibility for Blyth as an investment, and a lack of depth in the investor communications.
Objectives: It was agreed that the program's success would be measured by:
- Improving communications with the current investor base
- Educating the investors about the business
- Introducing Blyth to new potential investors and analysts
Strategies: Our strategies focused both on improving Blyth's communications with its current investors as well as finding means to introduce new investors and analysts to the company. For the current investors and analysts we focused on auditing the communications and identifying means to provide greater clarity to the efforts Blyth already had underway through an active counseling effort with management. Our strategy was also to build new venues in which to educate analysts and investors about the company, as well as opportunities for management to repeat its core messages.
Target Marketing to Investment Community: Recognizing that with the consolidation on Wall Street Blyth could not count on increased sell-side analyst coverage, we began an effort to identify and directly contact institutions that were likely potential investors in the company. This began with an extensive research effort that compared Blyth's investment merits to those of similar companies and then analyze the investment patterns of more than 2,500 institutions. This effort selected more than 100 institutions whose investment styles most closely matched those of the Blyth profile and which could be demonstrated as likely potential investors based on their investment styles.
Investor Outreach: With the institutional targets selected a concerted marketing and education program began to reach out to these potential investors. The first step was the development of background materials and an introductory letter. The mailing of the letter was followed up with telephone calls to discuss the company's investment merits, invitations to Blyth's conference calls and meetings and mailing of additional background materials. More than 250 letters were sent out.
Investor Day: In October Blyth sponsored its first half-day investor conference. Both current analysts and investors as well as potentials were invited to a carefully planned program. The topics for the presentations were specifically selected based on issues identified in the perception research study: growth strategy; European business strategy; R&D; marketing and branding. Also to build greater investor familiarity with the company's products displays were set up with each of the key product lines exactly as they looked in the retail stores. Forty-three investors attended the conference of which a third were firms not on Blyth’s contact lists.
Enhancing Message Delivery: A large portion of the program centered on counseling Blyth about its communications and actively working with the company to better organize and deliver its messages. This included reviewing drafts of press releases and discussing key issues as they confronted the company. It also included counsel and editorial review of the annual report to shareholders as well as planning steps to enhance analyst conference calls and an overhaul of the Blyth webpage. To educate current investors tours were also run to Blyth’s manufacturing and distribution facilities in North Carolina and the R&D and manufacturing facility near Chicago. The end result was a new level of support and enhanced perceptions with the financial community.
The results of the Blyth program can best be measured in the changing perceptions of the company and the ability to maintain investor support despite the turbulent year on Wall Street. In the second quarter of the year Blyth reported sales and earnings well below expectations, yet the investor base was maintained and Blyth was able to build and maintain investor interest. Further awareness of the company was enhanced when Forbes magazine recognized the firm as the leader of the house products sector in Forbes’ annual Platinum List of America’s Best Companies.
Objective: Improving Communications: Many steps were taken, for example: whereas an analyst had a verbal sparing match with management on the first quarter conference call, that same analyst complimented the company for its delivery of information on the second quarter conference call.
Objective: Educating Investors and Analysts: The research at the beginning of the program identified key weaknesses in perceptions of the company including a lack of understanding of the business drivers, inflated growth expectations and a perceived lack of management depth. A second perception study conducted in the fall of 2000 after the October investor conference identified the depth of management as one of the company's greatest strengths. An analyst report published the day after the October Investor Day communicated the key messages we sought: Josphenthal wrote, “Blyth held a half-day analyst meeting in New York yesterday. We are raising our rating … Blyth is widening its competitive advantage in the areas of consumer marketing and research and development under new management.”
Objective: Introducing new potential investors and analysts: In addition to 250 letters distributed, 30% of the attendees at the investor conference were new to the company. Further First Union Securities initiated new research coverage of the company. Total institutional ownership rose to 68.06% of the stock by the end of 2000, creating $134 million in new market capitalization (i.e. the vale Wall Street places on the company) – or a 20% increase in the value of the stock held by institutions.
Overall in a turbulent year in which the stock market turned negative, Blyth maintained its stock valuation through a strong communications program. Its closest competitors saw their stocks fall Yankee Candle (-15%) and Lancaster Colony (-24%), while major consumer companies such as American Greetings (-57%) and Dial (-50%) tumbled and the overall Dow Jones (-8% ) and NASDAQ (-30%) averages also recorded declines.