Colin Williams, who died on 30th June 2015, was an influential figure in the field of lesser known metals and minerals in London, an individual subscriber to the LME at one time, one of the pioneers of trade with China from the 1960’s onwards, and a man who was discretely but enigmatically involved in the communities and causes close to his heart.
Colin’s great-great-grandfather George Williams had been a successful City of London merchant in the mid 1800’s and founded the YMCA in 1844. Like so many families of his era, Colin (who was born in February 1942) never knew his father, who was shot down in action over Kiel in May 1942, nor his grandfather, who was killed in action in the 1st World War. Colin was educated at Uppingham School, and his love and affection for this nurturing community remained with him throughout his life. It was there that he developed a range of talents from art through music, on the stage and on the rugby field, acquiring in the process a lasting love of hymn singing and an ambition to become the Head of the Metropolitan Police. Following a brief spell at Magdalen College, Oxford in the law department and whilst playing rugby for Esher RFC, Colin’s rugby captain Ian Brackenbury encouraged him to set aside his ambitions in the police force and become a metal merchant. Ian was a director at Rudolf Wolff & Co and himself an old Uppinghamian. Over the following decade, as Colin’s career took shape, Esher’s fly half became Wogen’s lawyer, and another rugby team member became Wogen’s shipping insurance broker.
When describing his profession, Colin liked to refer to being a Merchant Adventurer, although in the early days a considerable part of his job consisted of travelling up the new M1 to Sheffield in a clapped out mini-van in order to sell imported low carbon ferro chrome to the stainless steel mills there.
The adventurous part of his job involved the international physical metals trade. Colin followed his basic training at Rudolf Wolff Ltd with a sabbatical in California on UCLA’s business programme, a year he funded by buying the scrap wing of an aircraft from an American scrap yard and selling it to the UK titanium industry.
In the mid-1960’s he met Bernard Buckman, who had approached Wolff looking to purchase copper for Minmetals in China. Bernard was 30 years his senior and a veteran of the China trade since the Moscow Economic Summit of 1953. This started a friendship which lasted for over 25 years until Bernard’s death in 1991, and a relationship with Minmetals and China which stretched from the Canton Fair during the early days of the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960’s through to the present day. It took Colin to many cities across every region of China and led to a huge fund of experience in travel and negotiations in the Middle Kingdom. Colin believed resolutely in the importance of knowing both your customer and your metal better than anyone else. He had a firm belief in the importance of friendship and liking one’s customer as the basis of any successful business, and in the importance of timing.
Having set up Rudolf Wolff Special Metals in London, in the late 1960’s Colin moved his base to Hong Kong, and on the back of the nickel boom travelled to Western Australia where he met up with Donald Armstrong, Rudolf Wolff’s representative there. They bought a Land Rover in Perth, had a sign painted on the side saying “Rudolf Wolff Special Metals, Metal Buying Division” and set off into the outback of Western Australia where their first stop was the Poseidon discovery in Laverton, WA.
After meeting up with the Kalgoorlie Rugby Club in a pub and co-opting the team to peg some claims for them, the duo set off across the Nullarbor Desert for Sydney. While they didn’t discover any new nickel prospects, the RW team gained a critical insight into Poseidon and the nickel bubble, which stood them in good stead in surviving the subsequent crash. They also negotiated the 4,000km track to Sydney and their joint efforts led 3 years later to Wogen Australia being set up, to trade metals and to represent such Australian mining companies as Hamersley Iron, Comalco, Western Mining, and Consolidated Rutile selling to China at a time when China was still off the map in a way that few countries are today.
In early 1971, Colin joined a Rudolf Wolff delegation led by Jack Wolff and Francois Robert. They were promoting their candidacy as world sales agents for Peruvian metals and minerals, at the time under the exclusive marketing of Minero Peru, a state organization. This was the start of another of Colin’s long-standing friendships, in this case with Carlos Grana and Ronnie Gillespie, who were in charge of marketing at Minero Peru. While the various agencies offered were evaluated, and rejected by Minero Peru, there was a strike at the Cerro de Pasco Lead smelter, which had created a growing bottle neck and stock of untreated Pb Concs. Colin registered this and from Lima he went to Mexico, where he mentioned this fact to Wolff’s agents Jose Barroso and Raul Estevez, who brought it to the attention of Penoles. Shortly after, a first contract with Penoles was signed for the toll treatment during one year of a total of 100,000mt of Pb Concs which was soon extended for an additional period of 9 years, at the rate of 100,000 mtpy, making the total tonnage of this deal 1,000,000 tons of Peruvian Pb Concs. This anecdote of an Englishman brokering an enormous deal between two Spanish speaking countries was one Colin used to explain to new recruits the importance of travel, serendipity and gumption.
Shortly thereafter, the partners of Rudolf Wolff sold their LME business to Noranda. Colin always wished to set up his own company and the catalyst of Rudolf Wolff’s sale to Noranda led him in 1972 to team up with Bernard Buckman to establish Wogen Resources at 17 Devonshire Street, where the company was based for 15 years before moving to its current location at No.4, The Sanctuary, Westminster.
From the beginning the focus of the new business was China and one of the initial deals brokered was the start of sales of Iron Ore from the newly developed Hamersley Iron mines in the Pilbara, Western Australia to Minmetals in China. This was the beginning of a 30 year relationship with the CRA subsidiaries Hamersley Iron and Comalco, which only ended in the early 2000’s, by which time Hamersley was selling many tens of millions of tons per year of Iron Ore to China and Comalco many hundreds of thousands of tons of Alumina.
By 1980 Wogen’s star in China had risen so far as to qualify Colin and Bernard for an audience in the Great Hall of the People with Deputy Vice-Premier & Politburo member Wang Zhen. Wogen was at the forefront in developing a presence on the ground in China and opened one of the first wave of accredited representative offices in Beijing in 1980, following up with an office in Shanghai in 1984. Similarly Wogen was at the fore-front of opening a Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise in 2004 as soon as that was allowed.
As a counterpoint to China, Colin thrived in doing business behind the iron curtain and made forays to Moscow, which involved trade in comparable proportions to those he undertook in the PRC.
From his time in California onwards, Colin had developed a keen interest in the materials being used in the developing aerospace industry, in particular Titanium. A fortuitous combination of British metallurgical processing capability combined with large-scale generation of Titanium turnings in US machine shops and the development of HSLA steel resulted in Sheffield becoming the Ferro Titanium production centre of the world from the 1970’s through to the 1990’s. Rudolf Wolff had teamed up with Geoffrey Willan and Jim Ingall to supply raw material from the USA for melting in Sheffield, with RW marketing the FeTi product. This was the basis of Willan-Wogen Alloys, formed in the mid 1970’s in Rotherham, a JV company which Wogen later acquired in full, and which formed the core of Wogen’s substantial Titanium business until the FeTi processing section was sold in 2000 to London & Scandinavian Alloys leaving Wogen Titanium Ltd trading and processing Titanium Sponge. In 1990 Willan-Wogen Alloys Ltd was awarded the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement and in 2006 Wogen Titanium Ltd was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, achievements of which Colin was rightfully proud.
In 2005 as the industrial revolution in China was taking off, Wogen became only the 2nd pure metal trading company to float on the London Stock Exchange, MG UK being the first in 1999. While the aim of the flotation was to facilitate succession planning and the further development of the company, the Company found itself out of sympathy with the expectations which the stock market had of a quoted company and when the stock market crashed in 2008/9 to a level where the shares were trading at a fraction of the net worth of the company, a number of employee shareholders decided to take the Company private. Wogen remains a private company owned solely by employees.
Colin had several interests outside of work which centred around providing support and guidance to communities close to his heart. He was appointed a Trustee of Uppingham School in 1991 and was Chairman from 1999-2008. He was instrumental in the creation of the Uppingham Foundation in 1999 and his great strength lay in encouraging others to help support the School too. He was an Active Honorary Steward of Westminster Abbey from 1992 until 2012 and served the YMCA as a Vice-President. Colin’s hobbies and interests were listed as ‘hymn singing, fly fishing, watercolours and beer drinking’. He was made a Freeman of the City of London in the 1960’s and admitted as a Liveryman to the Worshipful Company of Broderers in 2002.
On the evening of Monday 20th July 2015, Colin’s body rested overnight in St Faith’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, an honour afforded him as a former Honorary Steward, followed the next morning by a Requiem Mass.
On Wednesday 22nd July a Funeral Service was held for Colin in his Parish Church in Conington, Cambridgeshire. He is survived by his wife, son, daughter and grand-daughter.