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To be, or not to be, an agent

Bright Future? Bright Wire

His entire family from the east of Poland had been murdered by the Russians in the 1940s. That was except for his mother and father who separately escaped to Britain. His father, as he described him, was like one of the old gentlemen seen at the Polish Hearth Club (Ognisko) on Exhibition Road, dressed in a black suit, drinking tea on Sunday after Church and discussing the war. Mark’s mother was a nurse who ministered to the dying. She would leave home in the small hours to see her charges on their way to the next life.

I met Mark on a metal deal in Finland in the early 1990s after I’d decided to go on my own. It had been hard. None of the banks would lend – and those that said they would mentioned my net worth would have to reach £10 mln first. As a result, I was trying to put together deals to earn my living as an agent whose earnings might be as little as 1% of the net profit on a deal.

In the case in question, I had found myself on a wintry Helsinki dockside to inspect a heap of Russian mixed copper scrap tipped from the back of a container. Copper wasn’t really my thing. I didn’t know the various grades (Mill Berry, Bright Wire, mixed bronze/brass (nor was I then aware of the threat of contamination from copper-beryllium - never to be mixed with other forms) - nor how any of it would be priced. To say I was feeling my way is something of an exaggeration.

What happened this time, was that I had persuaded the company I once worked for to be the buyer while the seller was a Finn who I later came to think of as ‘the wrong man in the right place at the right time’. He was a good-looking, tall, well-dressed, charming, crook – although even the charm in my eyes soon began to fade. Mark had been brought along by the buyer who described him to me as ‘a human mass spectrometer’. What had possessed Mark to venture off his usual beat in the Black Country was similar to my reasons. Things were stirring across Central Europe and Russia: our antecedents had both come to Britain as a result of the turmoil of the last war, so we were curious. Buying metal from Russia was one way to obtain a grandstand view of the changing geopolitics.

In this case we collectively inspected the pile of mixed shapes of copper glistening in the winter sun and retired to the Finn’s dockside office, at which buyers and advisors sat at opposite ends of a large table. As agent, I sat somewhere in the middle.

As discussions progressed the two teams gradually closed in on the deal. Just one more heave was required, and this was achieved when one of the sides suggested brightly that if they cut me out, they would have a settlement price. Everyone, except me, agreed this was a brilliant solution and instant smiles and vigorous handshaking broke out on all sides. Meanwhile both muttered as an aside something about 'sorting me out on a future business'.

When I returned to London, having spent the last of my capital on the costs of the trip, my prospects didn’t look good. I had a young family, and was to all intents and purposes bust.

But one night, as I was driving home in the dark from my office, the phone rang and as it crackled into life I could hear Mark’s voice saying, ‘I didn’t like what I saw in Finland and if you need funds….’ At which point the phone went dead.

It was not a mirage. Mark had meant what he said, and a few days later rang back thus starting ten years of friendship and joint travel in the Former Soviet Union. It is to him I owe much of what I know about inspecting many different kinds of metal scrap – whether drosses, turnings, grindings, mixed fabrications, and many different elements and alloys, from titanium to germanium, indium to gallium, zirconium to hafnium.

On my side, I had three inferior assets which Mark appeared to appreciate. I was honest, liked adventure and didn’t mind the paperwork. I complemented his skills and also bridged the gap between the (at that time) inexperienced new Russian traders and the contractual needs of Western buyers. If I subsequently enjoyed any success in metals, it was due to Mark.

In later years I fell out with Mark and do not know why. He had become a modern-day Noah, for ever building an ark, always besieged with unwarranted fears of competitors targeting him, while for ever trying to build the ultimate furnace; customising it all himself believing no adviser or engineer would ever be good or bright enough.

I write this today with fond memories and appreciation for the man who helped save my metal career but also as guidance to any young person who might in a weak moment consider the life of an agent. My advice is ‘don’t do it’. Almost any form of employment is preferable. Be an employee or a principal – but never an agent.

Although he is unlikely ever to read this, I wouldn’t mind others knowing that I owe my career to him. 

(Names of real people have been changed).

By Anthony Lipmann

March 8th 2024

Published in The Crucible






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