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2 Firms Share Title of America’s Top Corporate Access Provider

Although bulge-bracket firms dominate, many niche players also earn a place in this year’s results.

From Locked ranking

J.P. Morgan earns a fourth straight appearance at No. 1 on America’s Top Corporate Access Providers, Institutional Investor’s exclusive annual ranking of the sell-side firms that do the best job of arranging meetings between money managers and the country’s most sought-after chief executives. But this year it shares the top spot with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which advances from second place. Each firm claims a place in 38 of the 53 industry sectors that produce publishable results.

However, when a rating of four is assigned to each first-place position, three to each second-place position and so on, J.P. Morgan is the undisputed champion, with a weighted score of 111 to BofA Merrill’s 87. Indeed, J.P. Morgan is deemed the best in fully half the sectors in which it claims a spot — nearly three times as many as the latter firm.

Morgan Stanley repeats in third place overall, with 37 positions. Click on the Leaders in the navigation table at right to view the full list of 29 firms that earn a place on the 2015 roster.

Survey results reflect the opinions of more than 1,520 investors at some 650 institutions that collectively manage an estimated $7.97 trillion in U.S. equities.

Although bulge-bracket firms dominate again this year, many niche players also earn a place in this year’s results. Take Wolfe Research, for instance. The No. 18 firm appears in four categories: Airfreight & Surface Transportation (first place), Airlines (second place), Electric Utilities (third place) and Retailing/Food & Drug Chains (runner-up).

When Edward Wolfe left Bear, Stearns & Co. in 2008 to launch his own boutique, he was concerned it would be difficult to bring clients the corporate access they crave. Even though he had already amassed ten appearances on the All-America Research Team — including seven first-place finishes in Airfreight & Surface Transportation and predecessor sectors — he wasn’t sure he would be able to compete with the larger firms when it came to setting up one-on-one meetings, conferences or nondeal road shows.

Turns out he worried for nothing.

“In the transport sector having such strong relationships and having been the top analyst for a lot of years, people wanted to help me,” Wolfe recalls. Many were willing to go out of their way to support a small business, he adds, and “they gave me extra marketing for a couple years.”

Being a smaller shop has its advantages. “Instead of having to know 100 different sectors, we know our sectors and our companies exceptionally well,” he notes.

In the fiercely competitive market for corporate access, working with comparatively fewer resources means having a heightened focus on quality. “We’re not in the business of blindly accepting road shows,” Wolfe insists. His analysts have in-depth discussions with corporate officials about the investors they want to meet and the messages they hope to convey.

In the first nine months of this year, his firm conducted 37 nondeal road shows and 11 visits to corporate headquarters. In May, Wolfe Research hosted its eighth annual Global Transportation Conference in New York, which drew over 400 attendees. Senior management from more than 60 companies participated in some 420 one-on-one sessions.

The competitive advantage of smaller firms is also highlighted in the financial services sectors. Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, the boutique investment bank, outperforms all others in both Banks/Midcap and Consumer Finance, captures second place in Brokers, Asset Managers & Exchanges and earns runner-up positions in Banks/Large-Cap, Insurance/Life and Insurance/Nonlife. KBW’s equity research division reports on a whopping 489 U.S. financial institutions and distinguishes itself from the global banks by hosting separate events for asset management, banking, insurance and so on, rather than lumping everything together under the general heading of financials.

“It allows investors to get more depth in the kind of companies they’re looking at, and it allows them to focus the mind,” explains research chief Frederick Cannon. “They don’t have to jump from an asset manager to an insurance company to a bank.”

KBW exemplifies how specialized firms can also get creative to satisfy their clients. This year the company started featuring a so-called data room at its conferences, where attendees can find analysts’ models and notes as well as lists of insightful questions they may want to ask each company.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is be sure to add value to the corporate access and not just be a concierge service,” says Cannon. KBW infuses its events with proprietary research. This approach is resonating with clients as it enables investors to have deeper conversations with company representatives that they may not follow as closely, such as those with smaller market capitalizations.

KBW has also diverged from the common format of having C-suite executives give PowerPoint presentations to attendees. Since such presentations tend to be widely disseminated online, Cannon suggests that attendees have likely seen them before. Instead, KBW analysts interview corporate officials in front of the audience, bringing their own industry and company-specific insight into the discussion. Over the past three years, this “fireside chat” format has become a mainstay of the firm’s conferences, he says.

The Community Bank Investor Conference, held in New York each summer, tends to be KBW’s largest. This year’s event brought almost 500 investors together with more than 100 companies participating in 1,675 meetings. So far this year, KBW has orchestrated 2,105 private meetings during 167 nondeal road shows, Cannon reports.

While boutique research providers may dominate niche markets, size still matters. BofA Merrill increased its number of corporate access events nearly 10 percent over the past year, according to its head of corporate access, Elizabeth Everett. She points to several ways breadth of coverage benefits money managers.

For instance, having a multinational footprint helps her firm bring a worldwide stance to its events in the U.S. “If you think about what’s been driving the U.S. markets recently, a lot of it has to do with global influences, such as what’s going on in China,” Everett observes. “Having that perspective and being able to apply it — rather than being purely in a regional silo — is something our investors are looking for that we’re able to deliver.”

Michael Bossidy, J.P. Morgan’s head of distribution for the Americas, agrees about the advantages of an international reach. “We leverage relationships across J.P. Morgan to secure client access to thought leaders across various industries and regions,” he says.

His firm is also expanding its corporate access offerings in the face of strong demand. In 2016 the bank will host a new conference devoted to the energy sector; it will be held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Meanwhile, the 33rd annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, held in January at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis hotel, drew more than 9,000 attendees — a record — and some 450 companies.

Despite the big banks’ beefing up their schedules, the market’s appetite for corporate access remains large enough to accommodate multiple providers, including such smaller institutions as Wolfe Research. Regardless of size, the key to success is understanding investors. “Demand is tremendous across all sectors, but it maximizes the impact if you pick the right company at the right time,” Wolfe advises.

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