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It's bonus time!

[Retired metal merchant, Anthony Lipmann, gives advice to the young person about to enter the world of metal merchanting. Part 10 of a series published in the trade journal of the minor metals trade - The Crucible]

So, it’s bonus time. You have been in the metals trade just one year. Around you, older members of the company peel off into huddles to talk about pensions, their offshore blind trusts or foundations.

At one company at which I was employed, more time appeared to be spent on pension calculations than trading. It was all about the money.

Photograph taken by Anthony Lipmann

The younger trader needs to be reminded that in most forms of employment such an event does not exist. In 1979 my first boss told me that I should probably make a £1mln by the time I was thirty. As this did not happen, I judged myself a failure.

Metals is a honey pot and people figure so long as they are in its vicinity a good portion will stick to their fingers – that is, unless you have the proclivities of Pooh Bear. Pooh is so greedy for honey that when he is invited to Rabbit’s house, he eats all the honey and swells so that despite all the pushing and pulling of his friends he cannot get out. He must slim. This is an allegorical story that needs to be read to all young metal traders. Be hungry but not greedy.

My first boss was a delight. He gave me £600 at the end of a first year in which I had excelled at writing Shakespeare-style metal reports which our company circulated to clients. Today, I look back surprised at my confidence. But ignorance never stopped me. It sounded good enough and my boss used to call me his ‘scholar’ because he thought I could spell quite well. Writing the report was the low-key advertising a commodity broker on the London Metal Exchange did at the time. I blew that years’ entire loot on a party. Next year’s bonus was a bit more money and a Sony Trinitron Television. In the evening after work, my boss liked to put his feet up in a cat-launcher chair and watch the Rugby. I considered the bonus he gave me was something personal.

At another company, where I had ambition, I fancied myself as a director. But for reasons I never understood, the call never came. At bonus time, while I waited at my desk to be called, weighed down by mortgage debt and the costs of a young family, a tingling sensation of anticipation coursed through my veins. Just as with the lottery I was always disappointed.

There were of course, all around me, what you might call 'metal trading stars' – traders who had pulled off something special – perhaps shipping a hundred thousand tons of alumina into a smelter or being on the right side of a bull market in cadmium, arsenic or cobalt. Of course, I was always jealous of them, imagining negotiations in which the bosses felt they had to pay out or the luminaries would take their skills elsewhere.

On one such occasion in the 1950s my father’s boss had rashly agreed to a percentage of the company's aluminium profits. When it came to bonus time, the boss reneged, so my father gave him an ultimatum. ‘There's my hat and coat', he said, pointing to the hat stand. 'I am walking towards them right now - and if you don't change your mind, I am putting them on, walking down the stairs, and you'll never see me again'. With that my father found himself out in the street, and out of a job. It was a good lesson and, upon hearing the story, I vowed never ever to have ‘High Noon’ stand-offs in my career.

It can take years sometimes before you realise that, if you are in metals, you are basically spoiled. Nurses, ticket collectors, builders, bus-drivers, council workers, rarely have bonus times. Mostly they have – if they are lucky – collective bargaining, or nothing.

So, my killjoy advice to the young trader is not to watch the bonus but watch the trading. In our private company we think we are quite generous with bonuses, but they are not related to an individual’s work but to the success or otherwise of the company as a whole. Perhaps there are those who think this a rather communist idea but the employee needs to remember that the owners have to live through both the good years and bad.

As Noël Coward wrote in the song of the same name….. ‘There are bad times just around the corner’. Employees always focus on present success. Bosses wonder where the next storm is likely to come from.

By Anthony Lipmann 26.08.22

Published in August edition of The Crucible, the journal of the MMTA


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