Strictly Come Metal Trading

Retired metal merchant, Anthony Lipmann, illuminates metal trading for the young

1: The Jiminy Cricket Theory of Metal Trading: ‘It’s not about the money’.

Young people, lured to the City of London, are often dazzled by what they regard as high salaries. Of course if up to this point your entire recompense was no more than a pat on the back and a degree, money can be attractive. Linklaters (the lawyers) are offering 24-year-old graduates starting salaries of £107,000, this autumn.

You can be a real metal merchant Pinocchio!

Call me old-fashioned, but I still happen to believe that purely chasing a big salary is not a guarantee of happiness – or success. Lawyers are a case in point. Most of my university friends who ended up in the law are still handcuffed to the job purely because it’s too expensive to get out. I’m not saying the metals industry is not remunerative – but I would advise any young person entering the trade to focus first on building skills because, without them, you won’t be around for long. If you happen to be any good, the money, I can assure you, will follow.

When I entered the trade in 1979, my father’s advice was ‘You need the attitude of a bank teller’. What he meant was that I was to keep my eye on the job not on its potential fiscal product. Regrettably, the analogy does not work well today as so few tellers exist, and the young so rarely go to banks. Given the same advice now, the aspiring metal merchant is more likely to ask, ‘What is a teller?’ So, in case any young person is actually reading this – a teller is the official behind the screen who bids you ‘Good Morning!’, processes your cheque, and hands over the cash.

My father’s analogy was that a teller might well handle a lot of money in a day but he/she/they/them, knows it is not his/hers etc. A good teller will have as much interest in dollars and pounds as an abattoir worker has for meat. My father wanted me to appreciate this at the start of my career because he'd seen fellow metal traders go astray; people who lost their equilibrium at the sight of dollars. To remind the neophyte of this fact I would place a banner over their desk as follows. ‘It’s about the metal, stupid!’ Obvious as this might seem to a hack (like me), treacherous waters can come disguised in the form of success. A little bit of beginners’ luck on Cobalt, for example, is like a first dose of heroin.

The best metal traders I know have a depth and breadth that can be awe-inspiring. They have a genuine interest in chemistry, applications, weird supply routes, elemental properties, the politics and anthropology of the countries in which metals and minerals arise, processes of refining, logistics, and financial instruments. In fact, an appetite for all details, including contractual ones and shipping terms, which will one day mould the all-round metal merchant.

Money - there is no getting away from it - is the object of the exercise, but it is further up the road. Buying cleverly, processing metal, and delivering to a customer - if done well - can lead (spoiler alert) to profit and dollars, improved salary, and, one day, perhaps enough wealth to allow the possibility of giving some away.

What’s required at the start of the metal journey, apart from my dad’s advice, is also Jiminy Cricket’s to Pinocchio. [Remember Pinocchio has a lot to learn to become a real boy (not a wooden one) and has a tendency to fib].

Take the straight and narrow path And if you start to slide Give a little whistle!

and Jiminy adds the important rider, ‘Always let your conscience be your guide!’

To have a long life in metals and be both a good metal merchant and a decent human – what’s needed is hard work, good judgment, attention to detail, and a genuine love of metal that is slightly greater than love of its financial product. In fact, it’s a life philosophy you need. Of course, you also need a load of nous too, but I’ll come to that later. Thank you Jiminy Cricket for putting it so well!


Published in The Crucible, October 2021