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With new camera, Principal can speak to the world



Hanging on the wall of Principal Financial Group Inc.’s trading floor on the 27th floor of 801 Grand is a tiny camera that promises to give the retirement funds manager a huge boost in visibility.

Using the camera, anyone at Principal can conduct live broadcast interviews with media outlets around the world, including AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Cable News Network, the British Broadcasting Corp. and General Electric Co.’s CNBC. The company plans initially to connect its money managers, analysts and executives, including Chairman and Chief Executive Barry Griswell, to the financial press.

The camera is the next step among many Principal has been taking since it first sold its shares to the public in the fall of 2001 to increase its public profile, particularly among investors. Principal is the first non-broadcaster in Central Iowa to install and operate such a device.

“I see all of these financial experts on television and I think, ‘Why aren’t we on there? We’re as good as they are, if not better,'” said Gary Sheeley, who as Principal’s manager of media development is in charge of the camera’s technical aspects.

Sheeley brought the idea for a camera to Principal after he saw one in use two and a half years ago in Charlotte, N.C., at First Union Securities, now a unit of Wachovia Corp. Principal also has a studio in 801 Grand that it uses to produce videos for employees and other training and educational materials for workers and customers. Sheeley also runs that studio.

The camera is operated by a small joystick and can be handled by a single technician. From Principal, the signal zips along fiber-optic cables to Boston-based VideoLink, which passes the transmission on to any media outlet or corporate customer that wants the link. For overseas interviews, VideoLink uses satellites.

VideoLink’s clients include International Business Machines Corp., Teradyne Inc., Akamai Technologies Inc., Putnam Investments and almost every major U.S. broadcaster.

“If Principal has a fault, it’s that the company hasn’t been making more noise about its successes,” said Jim McCaughan, a former president of Oppenheimer Capital who recently was named head of Principal Global Investors.

That is changing. The company was named this year as one of the top 100 companies in the nation to work for by Fortune magazine. Principal, which is Iowa’s most valuable company by market capitalization, ranked 210th in Fortune’s annual survey of the nation’s 500 largest companies, up from 221 the previous year.

Next month, Principal will release a list of what it believes are the 10 best small to medium-sized companies in terms of providing retirement services to employees. The list is likely to get attention from The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and financial broadcasters. It’s the second time Principal, the biggest manager of 401(k) retirement plans in the United States, has compiled the list. Sheeley estimates that the camera cost about $50,000 to buy and install. There is very little operating expense because broadcasters pay VideoLink to handle the connections.

So far, about 12 Principal employees have completed training and are ready to use the camera. About 60 workers have gone through extensive training courses in giving presentations, which isn’t too different from conducting on-air interviews, according to spokeswoman Terri Shell, who before coming to Principal worked on air in broadcast news.

The camera, which is about the size of a large handheld video recorder, got its first workout last Friday morning when portfolio manager Catherine Zaharis conducted an interview with Bloomberg LP’s Bloomberg Television. During the roughly five-minute interview, Zaharis, who manages the company’s $700 million mid-cap value fund, made her case for why investors should own value-oriented stocks.

Zaharis has plenty of on-air experience, though it has never been so easy for her to get connected to media outlets because a camera has never been nearby before. For Friday’s interview, she only had to walk down one flight of stairs from her 28th-floor office. All told, the interview took minutes.

When she did live interviews before the new camera was installed, she had to travel to West Des Moines-based Screenscape Studios, which has broadcasting facilities. The trip generally took more than an hour.

“Now it’s just a matter of how fast we can get our expert in front of the camera,” Sheeley said. “It’s just like a telephone call.”

Catherine Zaharis, who manages Principal Financial Group Inc.’s $700 million mid-cap value fund, prepares for a live interview with Bloomberg Television, using a new camera Principal has recently installed.  

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