The genesis of the Sohn Investment Conference was when Evan Sohn’s brother, Wall Street trader Ira Sohn, passed away aged 29 in October 1993 after a five-year battle with cancer. Ira’s manager and colleagues suggested the Sohn family do something in Ira’s memory. “The concept was to flip around the conference business model. Hitherto, organizations had sponsored conferences to access participants. We wanted to get a room full of people paying to hear great speakers presenting their best stock ideas,” says Evan.
Just 70 people attended the inaugural Sohn Conference in 1995, and nearly all of them were related to speakers, conference chairs or the family. This year some 2,500 people are expected to roll up at the Lincoln Centre on May 6th for what will be the 24th New York event. Sohn Conference has now expanded to eleven conferences worldwide, in 10 countries and five continents (Australia; Brazil; Canada; Geneva; Hong Kong; India; London; Monaco; San Francisco; Tel Aviv). The global events were initiated by those who attended the New York one and wanted to put on events locally.
Like the Oscars, nobody knows what ideas will be presented until the day itself.
“The Sohn Conference formula combines best ideas from stock-pickers with more informal fireside chats. The two key draws are the ideas being spoken about, and overall networking amongst the audience. More people are meandering in the lobby than attend most other conferences and the networking experience is something to be seen,” says Evan.
“There is always some idea at every conference that becomes talked about the next day. We never know if it will be from the main conference, the fireside chat, or the Next Wave group.”
“And, just like the Oscars, nobody knows what ideas will be presented until the day itself. There could be long, short or macro ideas. The audio-visual USB stick containing all of the presentations is the most valuable commodity. Only a few speakers make their presentations public. Live streaming or recording is not allowed, and that is part of the mystique. You have to be there to see the presentations,” says Evan.
“In the old days, media were embargoed and had to await a press release the following morning. We started inviting media just over a decade ago, and are now proud to have many media partners promoting the conference and foundation. The mission is to promote not only financial ideas but also global philanthropy, at all 11 locations.”
The Sohn Idea Contest, this year presented by ‘expert network’ firm, GLG, rather democratically can be entered by investment professionals, non-finance professionals or students, who get the chance to pitch a stock idea to the Sohn Conference audience.
Speakers this year include old favourites who have spoken at multiple events and newcomers making their debut. Greenlight founder, David Einhorn, famously made the case for a short position in Lehman Brothers at the 2008 conference. DoubleLine founder, Jeff Gundlach, is also a regular fixture who will be present in 2019 as will Glenview founder, Larry Robbins, who exemplifies the spirit of Sohn. Having recently lost his father to cancer, he used the event as an opportunity to announce a pledge of one million dollars to a specific project at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The Next Wave Sohn started in May 2014 and showcases earlier stage managers who are also entrepreneurs founding their own firms. There are two women and three men in this year’s five Next Wave speakers. Lauren Taylor Wolfe launched Impactive Capital, which combines shareholder activism and ESG engagement. She was earlier a Managing Director and Investing Partner at Blue Harbour Group, where she led investments in the technology, consumer, business and healthcare sectors. She sits on boards including HD Supply, and featured in the 2015 edition of The Hedge Fund Journal’s ’50 Leading Women in Hedge Funds’ report published in association with EY. Bayberry Capital founder, managing partner and managing director, Angela Aldrich, follows a fundamental long/short equity approach. She previously worked for Tiger Cub, Blue Ridge Capital. Matthew Smith left Citadel’s Surveyor Capital to found Deep Basin Capital, which focuses on energy equity investing on a market and beta-neutral basis. The firm blends more traditional fundamental analysis with quantitative computer programming. Former D.E. Shaw senior vice president, Parvinder Thiara, founded discretionary relative value manager, Athanor Capital. Todd Westhus set up credit manager Olympus Peak after being Managing Partner focused on credit and special situations at Perry Capital. He earlier specialized in distressed opportunities, trade claims and vendor finance at Avenue Capital Group.
A total of $90 million has been raised for pediatric cancer research and related areas since The Sohn Conference Foundation was launched in 2006.
The Sohn Conference Foundation was launched in 2006, and a total of US$90 million has been raised for pediatric cancer research and related areas. Evan is well aware that Sohn’s fundraising is very small in the overall scheme of medical research, where one single drug can cost hundreds of millions to develop. “We make an impact by being very focused in our spending. We partner with hospitals such as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, The Rockefeller University and NYU Langone Medical Center, to develop specific programs to move the needle forward in pediatric cancer and cancer research. This has resulted in some phenomenal stories, which we show on videos at the conference. The program impacts families and saves lives,” says Evan. For instance, “one specific program has expedited clinical trials for patients who need courses of medical treatment”.
The foundation’s funding also plugs some gaps in the US healthcare system, where insurance does not cover all treatments (and millions of people have no insurance).
“Genomic sequencing, analyzing the DNA of high-risk cancer patients, opens up the possibility of personalized and precision medicine. The cost of around $3,500 or more is not covered by any type of health insurance, but any high-risk child in the tri-state areas can now access this treatment at Columbia University Medical Centre thanks to an SCF grant,” says Evan. One video tells the power and potential of this groundbreaking technology. A baby diagnosed with leukaemia, who was not responding well to treatment, was saved by a bone marrow transplant from his sister. Sequencing every tumour then identified a specific type of cancer mutation that also posed a risk to the father and siblings, which led to the father having his thyroid and 30 lymph nodes removed.
Sohn Conference Foundation events in other countries support local charities. So, for instance, the Australian event supports a local charity called Hearts and Minds, while the Hong Kong event supports the Karen Leung foundation.