Next-Generation Virtual Shareholder Meetings: An Interview with Q4’s Darrell Heaps and Broadridge’s Cathy Conlon
21 April 2021
By Vanessa Hartung
The number of virtual shareholder meetings skyrocketed last year as public companies sought out an alternative to in-person gatherings because of the restrictions presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadridge, a leader in virtual shareholder meetings, saw the number of meetings grow over 600% in 2020 and identified opportunities for an improved experience over physical events through enhanced engagement and the ability to reach a broader set of shareholders.
After a year of virtual capital markets events, expectations are now higher in terms of the quality of the virtual meeting. Corporate issuers, investors, and shareholders have become accustomed to technologies like Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Microsoft Teams, creating an opportunity for the virtual shareholder meeting to evolve and deliver a better experience. With proxy season just around the corner, Q4 CEO and Founder, Darrell Heaps, met with Cathy Conlon, Vice President, Broadridge Corporate Issuer Product Strategy & Business Development, to discuss how the Broadridge team was able to manage the spike in virtual meetings, the best practices that emerged, and how Broadridge and Q4 are combining their expertise to deliver a next-generation experience that meets the ease and engagement required by shareholders, with the integration, collaboration, and transparency needed by issuers.
Darrell Heaps (DH): I’m excited to be doing an interview with Cathy Conlon from Broadridge, who has led the virtual shareholder meeting transformation at Broadridge for 10 years. In 2019, Broadridge hosted 326 virtual meetings, compared to almost 2,000 over the course of 2020. Can you share what your experience was like as adoption rates spiked, how the business pivoted to address the demand, and what it was like being at the center of it all?
Cathy Conlon (CC): We were seeing a steady increase in demand for a virtual shareholder meeting solution in 2019 and early 2020, even before the pandemic hit. We did believe at some point, the industry would come around to this being a great use of technology for this important governance event. Then the pandemic hit and everyone was forced to work remotely, so it was just an explosion of inquiries and requests for a virtual solution. Very early on, we recognized the need to educate the industry on virtual meetings, so we set up meetings and invited everyone who wanted to learn about virtual meeting technology. At the same time, we started building up our team, pulling people from across the organization to support the demand.
DH: After working so closely with issuers and navigating state-specific regulations, as not all states allowed for virtual meetings, how have things changed?
CC: As you know, in the United States, annual meetings are governed by State law, so there were some states that allowed virtual meetings, some that allowed hybrid, and some that allowed only physical meetings. To address this, temporary measures were introduced relatively quickly to allow companies to move forward with virtual meetings. However, in some cases, companies had already printed and/or mailed their proxy materials. So the SEC gave guidance, allowing them to change the location of the meeting and companies were able to notify shareholders of the switch via an SEC filing, a press release, and/or electronic notification instead of redistributing the proxy materials. Fast forward to today, we’re in a situation where many of the temporary measures remain in place. With so many unknowns, most companies are preparing for another season of virtual meetings.
DH: Absolutely, yes. And, being a leader in the market and having been involved in a number of virtual meetings, what were some of the lessons learned or the best practices that emerged? And what’s to come in 2021?
CC: I think the biggest learning is that technology worked and that companies were able to conduct their meetings, and shareholders were able to attend. In fact, the numbers show that there was really strong participation by shareholders in these meetings, who were able to easily ask questions and submit their votes. I also think companies were really pleasantly surprised by the fact that they could make this transition. And that it could go so smoothly, really on both sides. Now, of course, there were some hiccups along the way. But overall, I think it showed that the technology works and is, in fact, a reasonable alternative to a physical meeting. In some cases, a better alternative, as companies were able to attract more shareholders to their meetings and address their questions. There was definitely a large segment of the population that had never even contemplated doing a virtual meeting and yet found out really quickly that they could do it and they could do it successfully.
DH: It’s been amazing to see the amount of business that can be conducted virtually as a part of this whole pivot to virtual over the last year. When you think about the best practices that have emerged based on that experience, what are some of the key capabilities or features that you feel are most important?
CC: I think the number one thing is seamless access for shareholders. This includes making sure they know how to get there and that the experience is a really positive one that allows them to engage with the company. Having robust Q&A capabilities is also essential for shareholders to feel that their questions are being submitted and addressed by the company. And then on the company side, they can categorize the questions and give them to the right people to address them. And then the third thing is the ability to instill confidence in your company and leadership team by leveraging technology that’s easy to use, secure, and enables effortless engagement with shareholders.
DH: I agree, the Q&A component is definitely a high priority and something that comes up often in various articles and discussion groups. Leading to my next question, which you touched on a little bit, but it’s really about the opposition to virtual shareholder meetings. Are there other aspects that you’ve been focused on?
CC: Well, the other objection we hear is the lack of face-to-face dialogue and not being able to see the board members as they’re answering the questions. Shareholders can hear the tone of their voice, but can’t necessarily see them. As we evolve virtual meetings to be a more interactive format where we can see and talk to each other, I think that objection will fade. With more robust platforms, like the one we’re on right now, you can easily integrate people from their locations and see them face to face. This also creates a feeling of transparency – all the company members can be seen. It’s a complete win, I think, for shareholders and for companies as we evolve this technology.
DH: Yes, I agree. You mentioned the platform that we’re currently on for this interview, and in actual fact, today’s discussion is being hosted and recorded on the new virtual shareholder platform by Broadridge and Q4. I’m very excited about this partnership and the solution we’re able to offer. We’re looking forward to the upcoming proxy season this year and showcasing all the amazing features that are part of the platform.
CC: I’m really grateful for the opportunity to show the industry this great technology because many companies will be hosting a virtual shareholder meeting again this year. With our strategic partnership, we’ve made a huge leap forward, evolving the technology and now delivering a really modern virtual shareholder meeting platform. This platform’s capabilities and administrative tools are going to make it easier for the company that’s hosting the meeting while delivering seamless access for shareholders to join and have this great, engaging experience. So the future is really bright with virtual meetings as we continue to invest and evolve the technology.
Q4 and Broadridge have partnered to deliver a virtual shareholder meeting solution that combines Q4’s latest virtual events capabilities with the technology and expertise of Broadridge’s decade-plus leadership in VSMs to provide issuers and investors with a stress-free, intuitive and enriched experience that can increase engagement and reduce environmental impact.
Learn more about this next-generation solution by reading the press release.