In an elegant, but well-worn, blue suit, and open-top, Nick can still boast a full head of hair, even if fair has now faded to white. However, there is still much of the blue-eyed boy who was first employed by Colin Williams’ Wogen Resources in 1976 in the heady days when a trader was a trader and a broken cathode was a broken cathode.
With Nick now a free man, what better time to reflect on a working life at the heart of one of the MMTA’s major minor metals markets? (The ‘major-minor’ phrase was first coined by Peter Robbins of Wogen in the 1970s when the rather short list of minor metals at the MMTA’s inception in 1973 consisted of antimony, magnesium, nickel, cadmium, bismuth, selenium and mercury.)
The first procedural problem is that, due to an earlier meeting, morning tea has already segued into lunch, so it is agreed that we adjourn to The Mute Swan, conveniently placed three doors down from the office. By this stage Nick is keen to ask what are the terms of reference and aim of this interview, modestly suggesting he is not a worthy subject. I try to explain that I feel proud of the way the MMTA has developed in the last few years and how our parish magazine, The Crucible, has become an unique organ amongst metal trade magazines – a vessel for the full array of issues relating to our trade, the comings and goings of people, the folklore, the science, the announcements and notices, and many small matters that bind a group of people linked to a common trade.
It is not long before Nick further proves the point about community by recalling how our longest serving MMTA Chairman, Howard Masters, and he, had bonded over sport (in his case rugby, for which Nick has a Cambridge Rugby Blue) and cricket (in which Howard is a member of the MCC), and how welcome Nick had been made to feel in his salad days all those years ago. He tells me that at this year’s MMTA Anniversary Dinner, he has been invited to Howard’s oldies table which will also be his 64th Birthday and a fitting bookend to this major minor metal trader’s minor metal career.
But what, I ask, does he take from a life in metal, and was there another path he might have taken? As with most of us, he says, metal was not a trade on the radar of the average careers tutor in the 1970s. No one said ‘Have you heard about the metal trade? I think you should get into it.’
Born in Paris in 1952, Nick lived there until the age of four when his shipbroking father took the family to Lausanne and finally (where else?) Reigate. Father hit hard times and Nick went to a direct grant school – Haberdashers’ Aske’s. Gaining straight A’s, his father had wanted him to go out to work, but it was his mother who argued for her son to go to Cambridge.
After University, Nick’s first job on the outer edges of the commodities universe was as an account executive at U.S. commission house EF Hutton who promptly posted him – to Paris. It was there that he shared a flat with a fellow Cantabrigian, Sam Blyth, who was busy attending the then strike-bound Sorbonne. While Nick was out marketing cocoa, coffee and sugar by day, Sam was exploring the other goals that Paris life could provide. In those days too – then, as now – Paris came alive with Rugby in the winter, and it was this that happened to draw Sam Blyth’s cousin, the pipe-smoking and laconic Colin Williams, over the Channel. It was on one such visit, that Nick found himself answering questions about what he did for a living and explaining to Colin with great seriousness what commodity trading was about, rather unaware that his answers were being addressed to someone not entirely unestablished in the business. This proved to be Nick’s interview; and, upon returning to London, he was invited to the offices of Wogen in Devonshire Street and offered the job that would mould or, shall we say, cast, his metal life.
For a home counties boy, metals opened a whole new world, a world of merchant adventuring (as Colin Williams would describe it) one which could find you visiting countries as far flung as pre-liberalised China, Cold War Russia and a varied smattering of Eastern and Central European satellite states. Equipped with a metal shopping list, an absence of a credit limit, and the confidence of youth, French describes the excitement of obtaining resources and selling into the market. As Nick says, ‘It felt like a kind of fantastic sport’. Metal aside, the mix of characters in the world of trade spilled as if from a fantastic novel containing minor Spanish counts, semi reconditioned post-war Germans who had served on the Eastern Front, Politburo KGB apparatchiks and Jewish traders who had emerged from the European maelstrom into an international trading network that encompassed East and West. It was, Nick noted, a trade that took all sorts.
But, to take a metal term, there is a kind of hallmark to a notable metal career, and, in Nick’s case, the one imprinted like a stick of Brighton rock states ‘Cobalt 99.9%’. Still perhaps the most political of the minor metals, in those days it was a state-run business associated mostly with Zambia and Zaire (Congo) – before Nickel by-product tonnages drew attention away from Africa.
Heady times for sure, excitement, adrenalin, macho games, which many of us have had the chance to experience in our youthful business life; and when what we think of most is the game and the risk. But, as we get older, I ask him, to what extent do we look back and reflect on the moral complexities of trade?
As we walk back up the road from lunch, we touch on some of the moral issues of the trade.
But before going any further, I notice it is almost 4.00 pm, and I recall, from working alongside Nick at Wogen, it is the moment in the afternoon when Nick would customarily request a nice strong cup of tea and an aspirin. This afternoon he courteously declines the aspirin.
I continue, gently, that there are events in relation to African purchases and sales of cobalt – certain smoke and mirrors – that do not add lustre to the cobalt market in relation to Africa, and ask if he sees any room for optimism? This leads to a discussion about the issues that we know to be endemic – levels of corruption, state-owned companies that did not pay their workers, the legacy of the end of colonialism, the lack of investment by the newly independent African nations, and today’s privatisations that can lead to transfer pricing, with costs so easily retained in the country of production, and profit all too easily re-patriated abroad.
I say to him that, when I was first into the trade, I was just rather proud to be a trader. Trading, it seemed to me, in my youth, was a known good. It allowed nations of different political systems to communicate with each other, it brought wealth and jobs.
But today, I am not so sure. I am not sure the jobs are as good as they could be, and I am not sure our system is superior to the process for Empire building based on trade that was epitomised by the ambition of Cecil Rhodes. Nick is not more optimistic. Over the years, like many who worked with Zambia in particular, he gained a true affection for the country and its people. However, because of what he calls ‘vested interests’, he worries – as much as I do – for the future.
Perhaps this brings us neatly to a subject that links cobalt to a subject about which we are both of like mind – that is our wish for Zambia to do well and Congo to do better. In Zambia a new President was elected only a few weeks ago and, almost uniquely amongst African nations, without bloodshed. We have discussed how hard it is for the wolf to change its clothing. The more aggressive of our breed, those removing resources from Africa, seek only profit where it may be found. Is there any means to make relations more equitable? Could a blunt ‘tonnage tax’ redress the balance as regards lack of tax collected by African states on metals activities? Even as I mention this, I can hear the gnashing of teeth from a metal community countering that, with such a tax, competitiveness will be reduced and business will move to nations without this barrier. But, I am not so sure. My greatest hope, which I put to Nick, is that the growing population of young well educated graduates coming out of University in Zambia may be ready to take on the challenge. In 1964, at Independence there was only a handful of graduates in the country, today not only is education more widespread but the benefits of the internet mean access to information, once generally held only at state level, is accessible to all. Surely in this there must be hope? It is a moment to reflect on change and in this spirit, Nick agrees to accompany me to Zambia next year on my usual trip to Mufulira where the MMTA does work and has links which are trying to make a positive contribution to a country from which we in the metals world have all benefited. Asking him about his most lasting achievement – the answer is a surprise – the many young people who came to learn and develop with SFP and whom he set on their way. It is a fitting end to our interview.
Anthony Lipmann, Lipmann Walton & Co Ltd