10 Lessons Learned from Interviewing Hundreds of MicroCap CEOs

Adam Epstein Blog, Educational 9 Comments

No one in their right mind would ever actually set out to interview hundreds of CEOs, but as a co-manager of a hedge fund that invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 500 micro-and smallcap financings, it was part of the proverbial job description.  Here are 10 important lessons learned.

1)    Preparation – there is no reason to waste your time and someone else’s by sitting down with a CEO to discuss their company without preparing – really preparing.  To me, “really preparing” doesn’t mean looking at Yahoo Finance for a few minutes in the taxi on the way to the meeting, or flipping through the company’s PowerPoint on your phone.  That kind of preparation is akin to walking up a few flights of stairs with some grocery bags to get ready for climbing Mt. Rainier.  To be really prepared for a first meeting means reading/skimming the most recent 10K, the most recent 10Q, the most recent proxy filing, the management presentation, any previous management presentations (more on this later), a recent sell-side company or industry report, and an Internet search of the management team’s backgrounds (with particular emphasis on any prior SEC, NASD, or other state/federal legal problems).  It’s hard to overemphasize how many would-be micro-cap investing disasters can be headed off at the pass by reading what’s said, and not said, and then having the opportunity to ask the CEO directly about what you’ve found.

2)    Non-Starters – for better or worse, the micro-cap world is home to some “colorful” management teams.  After all of the time served in this regard, absolutely nothing surprises me anymore.  I have found CEOs who were simultaneously running 3 companies, CEOs who were banned from running a public company by the SEC, management presentations that were largely plagiarized, CEOs who shouted profanities in response to basic questions about their “skin in the game,” and CEOs who not only didn’t understand Reg. FD, but clearly didn’t even know it existed.  When in doubt, it’s much better not to invest at all than to make a bad investment; fortunately there are always thousands of other companies to consider.

3)    Company .PPT – these presentations speak volumes about what kind of company you are dealing with if you’re paying attention: a) my colleagues and I came up with a golden rule during my institutional investing tenure, namely that the length of a .ppt presentation is, more often than not, inversely proportional to the quality of the micro-cap company being presented (i.e., any micro-cap company that can’t be adequately presented in less than 20 slides is a problem, and 15 is even better); b) if the slides are too complex to understand on a standalone basis then either the company has a problem or you’re about to invest in something you don’t sufficiently understand – neither is good; c) NEO bios, market information, service/product/IP, strategy, financials, and use of proceeds should all receive equal billing (when buying a house, would you go and visit a house with an online profile that only features pictures of the front yard and the garage?); d) .ppt formatting and spelling/syntax problems are akin to showing up at an important job interview with giant pieces of spinach in your teeth; e) when reviewing use of proceeds (for a prospective financing) or milestones, look up prior investor presentations to see how well they did with prior promises – history often repeats itself; f) treat forward looking projections for what they typically are – fanciful at best, and violations of Reg. FD at worst; and g) micro-cap companies that flaunt celebrities as directors, partners, or investors should be approached cautiously.

4)    NEO Bios – as Ian Cassel often points out quite rightly in my opinion, micro-cap investing is an exercise in wagering on jockeys more than horses.  One of the principal ways prospective investors have to assess jockeys is the manner in which professional backgrounds are set forth; i.e., management bios.  Like a company .ppt, bios of named executive officers speak volumes about the people being described. Here are some things to look out for: a) bios that don’t contain specific company names (at least for a 10 year historic period) typically don’t for a reason, and it’s unlikely to be positive (e.g., “Mr. Smith has held senior management roles with several large technology companies”); b) it’s a good idea to compare SEC bios with bios you might find for the same people on other websites (remember the “three company CEO” referred to earlier?); c) bios that don’t contain any educational references or only highlight executive programs at Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, etc.; d) company websites that don’t have any management/director bios (surprising how many there are); and e) CEOs and CFOs who have never held those jobs before in a public company (to be clear, lots of micro-cap NEOs are “first-timers,” but it’s something you should at least factor into the risk profile of the investment).

5)    Management Conduct – just as management bios speak volumes, so does their conduct at in person one-on-one meetings.  More specifically: a) organized, professional corporate leaders rarely look disheveled or have bad hygiene; b) service providers chosen by companies also represent the company, so the previous observation applies to bankers/lawyers as well; c) CEOs who are overly chatty about non-business issues might not be keen to talk about their companies; d) if a CEO seems glued to their .ppt presentation (i.e., essentially just reading you the slides), tell them to close their laptops and just talk about the company with no visual aids – you will learn an awful lot about them in the ensuing 5 minutes; e) be on the lookout for NEOs or service providers cutting each other off, disagreeing with each other, or talking over one another;  f) when asking questions of the CEO or CFO watch their body language – moving around in their seats, running hands through their hair, perspiration, and less eye contact are nonverbal signs of duress (it’s one of the reasons why in-person meetings with management are always preferable to phone calls); g) if there are more than one NEOs in attendance, are they listening to each other (it’s rarely a great sign when other execs are looking at their phones during meetings); h) is the CEO providing careful, thoughtful answers or are they shooting from the hip – loose lips virtually always sink ships; i) did the CEO answer any questions with “I don’t know” – even great CEOs can’t possibly know the answer to every question about their companies; and j) something partially tongue-in-cheek just to think about – we know from everyday life that when someone starts a sentence with “with all due respect” what inevitably  follows is, well, something disrespectful, and when a CEO repeatedly says “to be honest” what inevitably follows is….

6)    Service Providers – micro-cap service providers (bankers, lawyers, auditors, IR firms, etc.) can run the gamut from highly professional to so bad that they can actually jeopardize companies with their advice.  While it certainly can take a while to learn “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in the micro-cap ecosystem, you can learn a lot about the CEO by asking him/her to take a few minutes to explain why the company’s service providers are the best choices for the shareholders.  It perhaps goes without saying that if a CEO can’t speak artfully, and convincingly in this regard, then buyer beware.

7)    Corporate Governance – spans the full continuum in micro-cap companies from top-notch to nothing more than a mirage.  One way to quickly ferret out which flavor of governance you’re dealing with is to ask a CEO to succinctly set forth the company’s strategy (i.e., goals, risks, opportunities, customers, etc.), and subsequently ask the CEO to describe how each seated director assists with the fundamental elements of achieving that strategy.  Though oversimplified, material disconnects in this regard are very likely to illustrate some governance challenges.  Also, ask the CEO how each of the directors came to the company; if all of the directors were brought to the company by the CEO, it’s fair to ask the CEO how confident an investor should be that the board is suitably independent to monitor the CEOs performance (one of the principal roles of all boards).

8)    Public Company IQ – easily one of the biggest problems with investing in the micro-cap arena is the conspicuous lack of (relevant, successful) capital markets and corporate finance experience in boardrooms and C-suites.  As alluded to earlier, it’s a fact of life that a large percentage of micro-cap officers and directors lack appreciable tenures in shepherding small public companies (to be clear, this doesn’t mean they aren’t smart, successful, and sophisticated, it just means they haven’t had lots of experience in small public companies).  Unlike larger public companies, small public companies can execute relatively well, and still toil in obscurity creating little or no value for shareholders.   It’s a good idea to evaluate the same when meeting with management, because companies with low “public company IQs” are more likely to underperform all else being equal.  Be on the lookout for CEOs who: a) can’t articulate a sensible strategy for maintaining or increasing trading volume; b) seem to regularly undertake financings that are more dilutive than similarly situated peer companies; c) frequently authorize the issuance of press releases that don’t appear to contain material information; d) blame some or all of their capital markets challenges on short-seller/market-making conspiracy theories; and e) can’t name the company’s largest 5 shareholders, their approximate holdings, and the last time he/she spoke to each.

9)    Follow-Up – CEOs who promise to follow-up after meetings with clarified answers, customer references, or more information but don’t are tacitly underscoring for you that they are either disorganized, disingenuous, don’t care about investors or all three.  The opposite is also not good; for example, if the company’s internal or external IR professionals subsequently convey information that seems inappropriate (from a Reg. FD standpoint) – it probably is.

10) Cautionary Note – Bernard Madoff undoubtedly would have passed these tests and a lot more with flying colors.  Sometimes the “bad guys” are really smart and charming and you’re going to either lose most of your money or get defrauded, or both. It’s happened to me, and it’s maddening and humbling at the same time.  Hence, the apt phrase: high risk, high return.

It’s easy, in my experience anyway, to get so skeptical about micro-cap companies that it can be paralyzing.  But, just when you’re about to throw in the towel, along comes a compelling growth prospect run by management with as much integrity and skill as the day is long, and it serves as a poignant reminder of everything that’s great about investing in small public companies.

Like most “best-of” lists, this isn’t intended to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination.  In addition to making money and promoting US jobs/innovation, one of the best parts of investing in small public companies in my opinion is continuing to hone the craft, and learn from other investors and their experiences.  Accordingly, add/subtract per your own experiences, and happy hunting.

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Adam J. Epstein advises small-cap boards through his firm, Third Creek Advisors, LLC, is a National Association of Corporate Directors Board Leadership Fellow, and the author of The Perfect Corporate Board: A Handbook for Mastering the Unique Challenges of Small-Cap Companies, (McGraw Hill, 2012).  He was co-founder and principal of Enable Capital Management, LLC.

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Comments 9

  1. This is a small handbook on micro-cap behavior. A copy should be on your desk or in your pocket every time you talk to a small cap CEO. Well done.
    John Gay

  2. Adam,

    Great stuff as always. I wish I had this list ten years ago.

    11) A CEO who buys stock in the open market when he is telling others that the company is significantly undervalued.

    If you are making soup, you should try it too.

    🙂

  3. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks again to Ian for inviting me to contribute. Keep that list going, Chris!

  4. Outstanding article, Adam. I would like to add some thoughts.

    Presentations that can not convey a compelling value proposition with enough differentiation in the market.
    Use of total market size, vs. addressable market (have seen this too often in the clean tech industry).
    Discussion around selected competitors vs. the broad competitive landscape and dynamics.
    Under estimation of competitor IP based on issued patents and static assumptions.
    CEO’s (Chief Everything Officers) who play too many roles (that’s what organizations are for).
    Revolving-door service providers.
    Directors that either willingly or subconsciously take on management roles.
    Management teams who take on lifestyle company traits, like treating funding as a form of
    “commercial revenue” (have seen this in companies with over reliance on Government grants).
    A shift into DOD applications may be an indicator the market is not supporting their products (the assumption being the DOD is willing to accept higher markups for needed products).

    1. Great comments, Tama. My only observation is that it’s arguably pretty challenging to discern director “over reach” from public information and/or meeting with the CEO/CFO. That said, would 100% agree that the blurring of distinction between governance and management is a red flag.

  5. Good article. I’ll add one more – Beware of unprofitable microcaps with low revenues and high executive salaries. Chances are your funding will get burned through with salaries quickly. Executives that get on board with a microcap should believe in the company and be there for the stock appreciation, not the salary. Multiple fundings that have all gone out to salaries is a red flag, even if they say this is the last funding until profitability – they may have given that speech each round.

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