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28 March 2018

I'm a Metal Trader; get me out of here!



There are possibly worse things than to be a celeb helicoptered into the Ozzie bush to eat grubs for a living. Being short of Vanadium or Cobalt could be two of them.

The problem I would like to air today (for those, like me, in possession of a Senior Railcard) is how to bring a longish metal career to an end; without that end being compulsory.

My father, possibly, I think, had it easier. He ran the London office of Gollin Corporation, a listed entity on the Australian Stock Exchange. Gollin was in its day the precursor of Packer, Bond Corporation and other Australian conglomerates that dominated the world of mining and commodities in the 1970s and 80’s. It was these entities that opened trade with ASEAN countries before the advent of Deng Xiao Ping. Gollin owned coal mines and coal ports, fishing fleets, traded concentrates, steel, ferro alloys, alumina. This had all happened under the maverick leadership of Keith Gale who took a dusty colonial penny-share and turned it back into something of value. Some of the happiest shareholders were home county types and backwoodsmen who had forgotten to throw away the paper.

For a while, Gollin enjoyed the same G-force as Glencore does today. Then, amidst a messy divorce, Gale helped himself to a little of the money he had made for others so that both his wife and ex-wife could live in the same street. It was an act that cost Gale his job and Gollin its predominance. It was sold and broken up, and Gale also lost his freedom.

I only met him once (years after the event, of course), although I later spoke to him a few times when I worked at Gerald Metals in 1987. We were on our way, as a family, to our holiday home in Switzerland and bumped into Gale at Geneva Airport. The bit I remember was that, as my father approached and started chatting (my mother and us children bringing up the rear),  Gale put out the flat of his hand like a traffic policeman. Perhaps Gale had other things on his mind.

When he eventually went to trial the judge sentenced him to a long stay in the Australian desert – something my father knew a bit about having been sent from England to something similar in 1940 as a potential fifth columnist. But that’s another story. There, in the desert, Gale remained for his 13 year sentence to fester, un-visited by friends and family. A paraphrase of what the judge, in his summing up, said, was that ‘he wanted to provide an example of the consequences for those who indulge in corporate greed and blur the lines between their own and shareholders’ funds’. In a fit of puritanical rage, he blistered that ‘it was the worst case of venality in Australian corporate history’. A record that may have been broken since.

My father decided to go to Australia to visit him, something neither of Gale’s wives had apparently done - and when he got off the small Cessna plane found Gale using his business skills to assist the governor in running his high security prison.

But I return to the point – Gollin’s failure was my father’s luck. Outside forces had ended his career with a full stop. His office in Lombard Street, that had handled the London Metal Exchange side of the Gollin business, called Gollin-Lipmann, had been a partnership, conferring unlimited liability on the smaller partner. In a partnership between a minnow and a whale, once the whale was harpooned, the minnow was obliterated.

Down and out in business terms, although not quite down and out in family ones, all I remember of the event was that Switzerland that Christmas was our finest holiday with even more extravagance than usual. Somehow, my father had managed to keep something back, but his business career was over. He was 55, and not yet entitled to a Senior Rail Card. He spent the next thirty-two years doing the washing-up.

So now, six years older than when he retired, and - unlike him - with a working family metal business, (one that he founded in 1953 and abandoned by 1958 to do other things) I have the illusion of controlling my destiny. There are days when it feels like you are Roger Federer –  and on others like Eddie the Eagle. But, so what?

I heard recently that jockeys and other sports people, forced to retire from the routines and intensity of life in the saddle, or action between the pins or stumps, rubbing the green or holding a racket, now require counselling. However, whether there is any such thing available to metal people, other than the gin bottle, I do not know.

One of the traditions of my father’s era, was to retire and die. The late lamented Anthony Yates of Tenants was but one. But we have higher expectations now. We, who own our own show, wonder whether we are failing, whether our eye-sight is going, if we have told that great story just one time too many, whether we are in danger of any of those classic errors that we spent a lifetime avoiding. Frankly, we wonder if we are still on top of our game. Do we remember everything? Do we know what goes on at the office? Do we still have courageous ideas, or have we become cautious? You cannot half play a game of football…

So, what’s to be done? If the matter were simply about money then the person in metals who is my exact age (61 yrs), Ivan Glasenberg, would have retired at the float in 2011. But he hasn’t, and it would be to miss the point to think he would ever have contemplated it. To take another Swiss analogy, none of us want to see Federer retire. It is too beautiful a thing to see a sportsman at the top of their game. But that, by consequence, might mean we are fated, if given the chance, to exit stage left when we are over the hill. Mr Richard Elman of Noble Resources might be a case in point.

So, it would appear the range of choices is limited. Push the boundaries of law and risk and come a cropper that way, or leave in a box. The problem is greater if you are trading profitably and, as a private company, do not want to sell out. Even if all the foregoing is true, are you really going to willingly hand over the tennis racket or the golf clubs?

If you are a metal merchant, doing the kind of job we do; addled, pickled and canned by metal, you don’t even have the exit that accompanies the ITV series. You can’t even get voted off!.... and if there is prize for winning at all, it is just that you might have survived perhaps with a little humanity attached if you are lucky.

It seems there is only one solution. You just have to whisper to yourself, and hope no one is listening – “I’m a metal merchant – get me out of here!” 

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