By Simon Kerr, Publisher of HFI
What were the circumstances for you setting up your first Roundtable Forum?
The first Forum was held in New York in May of 1999. It was actually a bit of an experiment. At the time, I was a 3rd party marketer and the conference circuit was tiring and getting stale. To keep it interesting, I was hosting some pretty elaborate dinner parties for managers and investors on the back of major conferences. I loved the dynamic; watching relationships develop naturally over a shared meal at an amazing venue – think Chateau de la Chevre D’or in Eze. At the time, I was also hearing about prime broker cap intro. I thought the concept was novel but somewhat conflicted. So, I decided to corral some of my friends who were also marketing, and try something different. I devised a format that combined my favorite aspects of a conference, a dinner party and a private client meeting. The event would take place in only one day. There would be no podium presentations save a key note. Managers would talk with investors about their areas of expertise at small round tables seating ten. Most important, the only people in attendance would be the manager speakers and the allocators. The ratio was approximately 1 to 5. The result was fantastic – totally beyond my expectations! Managers loved the exclusivity and quality speaking time. Investors loved the no-nonsense format, networking with peers and the efficiency of a one-day program. And so it began . . .
How many Forums have you run over the past 20 years? And what makes a successful one?
We have hosted a total of 72 Forums over the last 20 years. We only host 4 or 5 city-centric events each year to keep it impactful for investors. We appreciate that there are industry conferences every day of the week, so we’re respectful of their very limited and valuable time. A successful Forum always involves a timely and diverse roster of manager speakers and investors who really want to engage during the small-group, roundtable meetings. Currently, our focus is on niche, uncorrelated strategies (including ESG/impact) in any format – hedge funds, PE, hybrids, VC and for 2019, direct and co-investments.
Do you do any follow up research with Managers? Can you put into numbers the success of a Forum?
We have good ongoing relationships with many of our manager clients but success metrics are not generally available. Unlike 3rd party marketers, we receive a flat, non-recurring participation fee for our consulting services. Accordingly, managers (and investors) are not obliged to report meetings or allocations to us. However, I do believe that our longevity in a very aggressive and competitive space speaks volumes to our success.
Do you have examples of Managers coming back to use the Forums for their second or third fund?
Yes, we do. We also have managers who target market by attending multiple Forums in different cities. This gives them exposure to local investors in different regions of the country.
You’ve concentrated on the American end of your business, having run Forums in the U.K. and Europe. Why was that?
We hosted events in London from 2000 to 2012 and in Geneva and Zurich from 2007 to 2011. Unfortunately, the financial crisis curtailed that activity. The UK and Europe were dead and the regulatory environment was murky at best. I didn’t feel there was enough investor interest to justify anyone’s effort or expense so, we decided to take a breather from offshore events. In my experience, the U.S. is always the most resilient market post any crash or financial crisis. Accordingly, we began to focus on other U.S. cities. In 2013, Dallas was proposed to me by a Dallas based manager. It had all the right ingredients. Dallas has an active hedge fund community, a strong family office presence and it’s not bombarded with alts conferences. So, with the help of several local allocator friends we held our first Dallas Forum in 2014. In similar fashion, San Francisco launched in 2016 and then Palm Beach, in partnership with KPMG, in 2018.
Is there such a thing as regional biases when it comes to the responses that presenting Managers get from investors? Would investors on the West Coast prefer anything but tech long/short? Is there no need to present energy or commodity funds in Dallas? Does Palm Beach prefer annuity–type return profiles?
Each Forum has its own unique character. You might think in Dallas, for example, that investors would want to meet managers from outside of Texas. In actuality, they seem to enjoy supporting the home grown team, so to speak. If possible, we try to have a local fund on the schedule. They do like energy strategies but think more in terms of alternative energy which gives them diversification in a space they like and understand. On the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco with its proximity to Silicon Valley, tech is popular and it’s where we like to show VC. It’s also where we see strong interest in impact/ESG investing. In New York you can show just about anything! In Palm Beach, we really cater to single and multi-family offices. Accordingly, we like to show very niche and thematic funds that often feature “tangibles” – think real estate, life settlements, etc.
Your Managers have a limited time to pitch – do you have any do’s-and-don’ts in terms of content?
Yes. We work with our managers to make sure that they understand the format and how to maximize their time with the investors. All attending investors receive the “Roundtable Forum Workbook” a week in advance of a Forum. The Workbook is a compendium of fund profiles and manager bios which enables the investors to arrive “warm and informed”. So, we coach the managers to assume a certain baseline of knowledge and then encourage them to “excite, inspire and differentiate” during their presentations: What’s the opportunity – why now? How am I’m uniquely qualified? How is my approach different from my peers?
Has the composition of the investor base changed through time?
Yes. Prior to the financial crisis, we saw a mix of investor profiles with lots of active Fund-of-Funds. Post crisis, many FoF’s shut down or consolidated to survive, creating a real void. The rise of the family office, relatively unscathed by the crisis, began to fill that void. Having a different mandate and risk tolerance, many family offices had managed to preserve capital that was now critically in demand. Today, we welcome everyone, but we especially enjoy working with the single and multi-family offices. They take a different, more open-minded approach to investing and their decision-making timeline is short as compared to institutions. This gels nicely with the profile of managers we like to feature: new launches, emerging to “mid-stage” managers and new product coming out of any size shop. We also find that family offices frequently gravitate to the niche strategies we favor and what we call “tangibles”; strategies that you can wrap your head around. Real estate, legal receivables and life settlements are good examples.
From the feedback you get from the managers of Funds, those presenting at the Forums, does the format work better for a particular investment style, or pedigree of manager?
The format works for anyone who is able to engage, inspire, differentiate and foster relationship. We always position our speakers for success and give them the tools to follow through. Despite all the industry emphasis on sterile due diligence, this is still a “people business”. Successful managers appreciate that there will always be others in their space who might be performing similarly on paper. Accordingly, they “move” people intellectually and individually both before and after they become a client – they establish a relationship beyond the point of investment. This is critical, for example, in our current environment. Extreme volatility is difficult for most PMs to navigate and it often results in poor performance. The difference between a redemption and continued investor support frequently boils down to a solid relationship and clear, comforting communication. No one wants to feel like the proverbial mushroom. Investors are more likely to sit tight through the difficult times if they have a solid relationship with the PM that breeds confidence and patience.
What are the outcomes for an individual manager that make it a success for them? And what are the best examples you know of for a successful Forum?
A good outcome is beginning a dialogue(s) that eventually leads to a client relationship. Manager outcome is only as good as follow-up and, of course, performance. Follow-up can be challenging, especially for smaller managers who don’t have an in-house investor relations person. Leveraging your time and effort through a good CRM and/or email program is key. Increasingly, we are finding email to be a somewhat ineffective follow-up method. So, I also strongly encourage the use of an old-fashioned “thank you” letter via “snail mail”. Sadly, I find that the art of persuasive letter writing is lost, but we’re always there post Forum to lend a hand. We also like small group follow-up lunches to efficiently narrow the field of interest and keep the process moving forward.
What research do you need to do to ensure that you have an interesting line-up of managers? Are there strategies that work well when presented together? Do you avoid having too many managers in the same niche, or does it work the other way round?
Every Forum schedule is a bit of art and science. To start, our programming formula is unique and, to most conference planners, a bit bizarre. It’s somewhat akin to a professional flash mob. First, we evite all the investors to the Forum with no schedule in place – just a date, place, time and purpose. Investors register based on established trust. During the online RSVP process, we solicit input. Hence, we always describe our programs as “investor driven”. Each registrant has the opportunity to tell us what strategies they’re interested in – they can even make a specific manager recommendation. As registration builds, and the feedback data accumulates, we promote the Forum to managers and interview those who express interest. Then we work to match managers to current investor preferences. The result is always a diverse and compelling schedule of strategies with no overlap. When you’re only showing 10 to 12 managers, overlap, aka “competition”, is not fun for managers and it’s boring for investors.
Roundtable Forum 2019 Schedule:
- Palm Beach, March 6th, The Colony Hotel
- Dallas, April 10th, The Ritz Carlton
- New York, June 13th, Convene at 75 Rock Plaza
- San Francisco, November 12th, The Battery
- New York, December 5th, Convene at 75 Rock Plaza
Jane Amanda Halsey is the President of Roundtable Forum, LLC., a family owned and operated business which is the alternative investment industry’s leading independent allocator introduction and due diligence event