Notes from the other side: Retired metal merchant, Anthony Lipmann, illuminates metal trading for the young about to enter the world of metals.
Part 5: Embrace the chance to see what your customers do…
My mother-in-law used to say, “You don’t need to go down a coal mine to know it’s black”.
Maybe not. But 1,800 metres below the surface in a mine, tends to provide perspective. It is true that to be a decent trader there is absolutely no need to go to these lengths – but I would say it helps.
In my early 20s, in my first job as a chinless broker on the London Metal Exchange, I would do almost anything to obtain business. What I wanted most was to sign up new customers who would bring in commission so I could get a bonus. I learned to pump the phones and think up ways in which to entice customers to use the services of our small metal broking company. But one drawback about being a broker that I didn’t like was that you were chained to your desk – not allowed out unless to the pub or Le Gavroche or some other diner between the close of the morning ring sessions and the afternoon.
So I tried to find an excuse to get out and about. I chose a target that was sufficiently far from London but not so far that my business trip would not be sanctioned. This was the Wheal Jane tin mine in Cornwall and I can no longer remember if it was owned by RTZ at the time or some other entity, but suffice it to say through a tenuous family connection I found the name and phone number of the Managing Director at the plant.
After subjecting my target to my finest sales pitch, he finally agreed to see me on an appointed day. “If you want to talk, you are welcome. Be here at 0500 hrs for the morning shift”, he said. It’s a fair way from Surrey to Cornwall, and it was beginning to look as if my hopes for sherry and a chat in the boardroom were fading. “The 0500 hrs shift?”
“At least”, I thought, “it means I’m going in the right direction, and at the end of the day I’ll be back to London with a new customer for hedging tin”.
I should explain that at this point I’d never been down any shaft deeper than the Bakerloo line. But I was hungry. If I remember rightly I was in a quandary about what to wear as this was before the era in which powerful managing directors excised the tie from their wardrobe. So I wore my best Marks & Spencer city suit.
‘Brian’, for that was his name, I soon realised, loved his job just about as much as he disliked city slickers. My first experience underground was not as I expected. The first thing that surprised me was the size of the tunnels. The second was that it appeared to be raining down below which was caused by the liberation of aquifers required to get at the ore. There was not much dust in this type of mine, and I was walking along well-lit tunnels in a few inches of water. It was a revelation.
Brian explained about the porous rock, the mixed copper-zinc-lead-tin ores, some of which would be sent to the Britannia Smelter in Avonmouth and the rest to Capper Pass on the Humber Estuary in East Yorks. He also explained how he was trying to develop a green mineral by-product of the mining process into a useful financial credit as facing for buildings. I am not sure if this ever succeeded.
Coming up for air a few hours later, I shook hands with Brian who said he’d be in touch. We hadn’t said a word about hedging the tin. I got back to London and never heard from him again, and strangely whenever I called he was otherwise engaged.
I think of that trip when considering lessons learned in the early part of my career in the metal trade. Brian’s message, as I read it, was to take a real interest in what your customers do before you try and sell them something. It was a good message and in subsequent years I did not forget it – going down a number of mines, visiting smelters, scrapyards, plating works, refineries, extruding plants – all of which helped me (I think) to be a better metal man.
So, if you’re starting out in your career – personally I’d recommend taking all the opportunities that present themselves to get out of the office. It is true you need not go down a coal mine like a Bevin Boy to know it’s black – but there is much to learn (figuratively) if you do. One of the big take-homes is unending respect for the danger, engineering skills, and difficult conditions in which atoms of elements make their way from the depths of the earth, via skilful processing, for the plethora of applications in which they are later concealed – whether mobile phones, dentists’ equipment, automotive vehicles, specialty glass, aeroengines or your prized set of golf clubs.