Exit, stage left. (But please don't build a monument.)
‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts..' Careers come and go, and in a single working life many parts are played; employee, manager, owner maybe. Often the departure of others is noted but not always mourned. Exits create space. There are not many obituaries to metal men. Blue plaques are there none. What sometimes remains, in a trade that has the power to make and lose great fortunes, are a few monuments to wealth.
Carnegie’s are perhaps the foremost. This 19th Century son of a Scottish weaver, who accumulated more wealth in his day from steel than Elon Musk’s equivalent from Tesla, wrote himself a letter aged 33 dedicating the rest of his life to spending his fortune for good causes. He donated more than 2000 organs to churches throughout America, formed a Peace Institute, built palaces to culture such as The Carnegie Hall, and at the end of his life worked tirelessly to avert the First World War. But in his career, he underpaid his workers, engaged in sharp business practices and, as is well known, used a force of private security agents in 1892 to fire on his striking workers at Homestead works who - by the way - were not striking for increased pay, but for it not to be cut!
Are metal men generally fated to be amoral or immoral, you might ask, whatever dues they decide to pay at the door upon exit? Who said the script was to make the world a better place? To be slightly freer of the chains of society, is perhaps the practical reason that many metals businesses carry out their trade from low tax regions. If they own and operate an onshore company in the UK, say, it is often as an agent. As most metal movements do not touch UK, the argument goes, 'where, pray, is the UK content in a sale of metal sourced in Estonia and delivered to Japan?' Nothing wrong about that, is there?
Why our company chose not to operate in this way was not solely out of piety. In my case it was an aversion to adding to the corrosion of a country in which I consider myself fortunate to live, and one that gave my family sanctuary before and after the Second World War. Yes, it was a longer road to survive and make profits without being offshore, but my feeling at the other end of the journey is that it made us more efficient. Corporation Tax is, after all, only charged on profit and I have never bought into the machinations and wasted energy to which some go to avoid it. Sleights of hand such as the Starbucks formula never interested me. [Where the price of a coffee is divided between the percentage allocated to the warm drink where consumed, while the larger balance - for the right for it to be a Starbucks coffee - is remitted elsewhere.]
Perhaps in this present Covid crisis it will become more apparent that tax avoidance is a crime against self, the victim of which is us, the society in which you live. Many will argue that, had there been more in the pot before the pandemic, perhaps the ability of the UK National Health Service to cope would have greater, and slightly less dependent upon good will?
The trade in metal, with its international reach, is a morally compromised universe if we care to look; and I cannot say, after more than forty years in it, that I have resolved it. An example of the dilemma is our own company’s attitude to trade with China. Here is a regime that is bent on overturning democracy wherever it encounters it – and yet not to trade with it would be self-harm. Indeed, not to trade with morally compromised countries would leave no one to trade with at all except perhaps the Isle of Wight.
So, as I make my own personal exit, I can only reflect on the fact that I am gratified our small company has no mission statement with aspirations to do good in the world. Why delude ourselves that our job has any power of good? It is just a job, squeezing metal through the Suez one day, and back the next - subject to blockages.
I remember one day entering a new gallery in London dedicated to a branch of the arts. There, in this cathedral to learning, was a brass plaque on the wall dedicated to the generosity of the metal traders whose money had endowed it. How many of the student beneficiaries cared or knew of the nefarious source of the wealth that had led to its creation?
One old, deceased metal merchant once quoted to me Balzac’s famous truism ‘Behind every great fortune lies a great crime’. If you can think of an example of huge metal wealth that isn’t, please let me know.