The Secrets of Zions' Award-Winning Investor Relations Chief

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James Abbott, the guru for investor relations at Zions Bancorp., has quite the fan club.

Analysts have praised Abbott since he joined the Salt Lake City company in 2009. Top executives at Zions (ZION) think he's pretty swell, too.

"We may have had a lot of moving parts in our net interest margin and other things, but give James credit for explaining it well," Harris Simmons, chairman and chief executive of Zions, said during a fourth-quarter earnings call this week with analysts.

Abbott was recently named as the best investor relations professional for mid-cap banks by Institutional Investor magazine, an honor that he has received three times. The rankings were determined by a survey of more than 1,500 buy-side and 1,200 sell-side analysts at roughly 800 firms.

Explaining Zions' balance sheet and capital structure is hard. During the financial crisis, the $54.3 billion-asset company decided against diluting shareholder value by raising capital solely through sales of common stock. Instead, it turned to other forms of debt, such as preferred shares.

This creativity has led to a string of complicated quarters and the need to exchange debt bearing higher interest rates with cheaper funds. But Abbott embraces the challenge of explaining to others the company's plans.

"I enjoy the complexity and I like working," Abbott says. "I am terrible at golf."

Abbott's prior experience as an analyst at FBR Capital Markets and SNL Financial largely influence how he approaches his job today as senior vice president of investor relations and external communications at Zions. He makes it his job to know everything he can about the company so when analysts or investors call, he can readily answer their questions instead of giving the vague or delayed responses he often received when he was an analyst.

He also tries to conceptualize Zions using only publicly available information. This practice helps flag items that could concern outsiders.

"You can get a sense of what analysts are seeing so you can figure out what questions to answer before they even ask them," says Abbott, who admits that he was a "bit red-faced" as the company's executives heaped praise on him during the analyst call.

Abbott's method certainly works, as Zions management attested after a question about breaking down new credit extensions and advances versus the amount of paydowns and maturities.

"I made James take that out of the call script because it was already too long and he told me that somebody was going to ask that question," Doyle Arnold, Zions's vice chairman and chief financial officer, said on the call. "He's the No. 1 analyst"

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