Investors had more than numbers in mind on Wednesday when they met executives of several dozen public companies from Minnesota and nearby states.
Marijuana also came up.
The CFA Society of Minnesota three years ago began hosting its InvestMNt conference to give local companies a chance to meet local investors and analysts. While the state's publicly traded companies are generally well-known, Minnesota is also home to investment banks, bond firms and other money managers.
The conference, held at the Opus College of Business on the University of St. Thomas campus in downtown Minneapolis, for the first time included presentations from Minnesota companies, such as Cargill, that don't issue stock but do issue bonds.
And amid all the questioning on things like economic outlook and acquisition strategies, investors asked executives about new and emerging business opportunities. And with Minnesota joining other states in legalizing marijuana for medical use, more than one button-down executive was buttonholed on the topic.
Some scenes from the event:
Fastenal is always first
Fastenal, the Winona, Minn.-based maker of industrial fasteners and other factory and construction products, is the fastest company in Minnesota to report its financial performance. And its executives kicked off the conference at 7:30 a.m.
Chief Financial Officer Dan Florness described how the company has been able to diversify its product line and improve customer retention with a distribution device that seems quaint: the vending machine. By putting vending machines on factory floors, Fastenal is able to deliver more products that workers need, like gloves and goggles, exactly when they need.
PolyMet makes its case
St. Paul-based PolyMet Mining is trying to restart an iron mine and plant near Hoyt Lakes for copper, nickel and platinum, in one of the most controversial business investments currently being attempted in Minnesota. The company was dealt a huge setback in 2009, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's review gave the project its lowest rating.
The project, from a business standpoint, has several upsides, led by the lower cost of reviving an existing plant and mine rather than starting from scratch. As well, PolyMet Chief Financial Officer Douglas Newby noted, the number of new copper mining projects being started in the world is low while demand is steady.
Meanwhile, as the environmental debate is sure to rage on, the company is not trying to tear apart area that hasn't already seen action. "We're not developing in a pristine area," Newby said. "We're surrounded by mines. If you're going to develop a mine, this is about as good a place as you can do it."
Pure Cycle's energy
Water is the most precious resource, the axiom goes, and a small Colorado company that presented at the conference appeared at first to be a play on the growing interest in water as a business. Instead, it looks like an energy play.
Pure Cycle Corp. has purchased more than $100 million of water supply and rights in the West, mainly near its base in Denver. The firm distributes water but also has services to buy back used wastewater and recycle it.
But the company's growth over the past year has been in the energy business, chiefly supplying water for oil and gas fracking in southern Colorado. Its revenue from selling water to energy firms grew to over $1 million over the most recent nine months, accounting for half its overall revenue, and up from about $100,000 in the same nine months a year ago.
When an investor asked Pure Cycle Chief Executive Mark Harding if the firm had lined up any contracts with Colorado marijuana farms, he said no. "That business happens in back yards," Harding said. "It is an odd business."
Normal for Davis
At the plenary session of the conference, keynote speaker Richard Davis, chairman and chief executive of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, was asked a question he put to Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota at a public event two months ago: "Has the U.S. economy entered a 'new normal?' "
Davis replied, "We've entered a different normal."
He noted that every generation is shaped by economic events and wondered whether young adults who were teenagers in 2008 and 2009 may wind up delaying home purchases and behave conservatively with money as people did who grew up during the Great Depression. "There's a re-evaluation of risk underway," he said.
Broadband for teen jobs
At last year's InvestMNt conference, a small Twin Cities developer of broadband installation services got a lot of attention from investors. But no analysts have started to follow the company.
Clearfield CEO Cheri Beranek told investors at this year's conference that she thinks that's because she won't give analysts any guidance to help them develop recommendations. "The problem with guidance for companies our size is you end up managing to a number rather than managing to opportunity," she said.
She told investors that the company is now manufacturing its "FieldShield" microconduct technology for protecting optical fiber without having to run it through three-inch pipe. That should allow faster installation by Internet service providers because it won't require highly trained construction crews. "We believe you should be able to install fiber with a high school kid or a college kid home for the summer," Beranek said.
Cargill's global risks
Cargill Treasurer Jay Olson said the risks the company faces by operating in some of the world's trouble spots is less than it may seem. Governments, he said, tend not to interfere in the food business, he said.
When he was asked whether the company might try to get into the industrial hemp business, Olson at first said no. Then he laughed and said, "But you never know."