A tribute from Trafigura

Read the tribute in French | Portuguese | Spanish

 

Rarely has a life cut prematurely short had as great an impact as that of Claude Dauphin, who died on 30th September 2015 at the age of 64.

During a career spanning more than three decades in the commodities business, he founded Trafigura and developed it from modest beginnings into one of the world’s leading trading firms, with a 22-year record of profitable growth, investment and job creation. In the process he built one of the engines of globalisation, driving physical trade in energy and mineral products vital to global growth and economic integration in the past decade.

He oversaw the reshaping of his family’s century-old French waste recycling business into Ecore, a European industry leader in the sector. He built an unparalleled network of friends, partners and supporters in the governments and leading companies with which he did business all over the world.

Most important of all was the impact he had on people. Colleagues, business partners, friends and competitors alike are unanimous: what made Claude unique – always “Claude”, only rarely “Mr Dauphin” - was the sheer force of his personality.

He had few equals in his energy, drive and capacity for hard work; his commitment to excellence in all his endeavours; his courage and entrepreneurial appetite for risk; his brilliant and intuitive commercial judgment; his humanity and generosity of spirit; the ferocious loyalty and friendship he gave and drew from those around him; his charm and impish humour.

One can think of few examples in recent times where one man’s personality has left such a strong imprint on multiple companies and on thousands of people whose livelihoods they affected. Moreover, the businesses he helped to create are built to last, meaning his name will be remembered with gratitude for decades to come. Last and not least is his personal legacy in a close-knit and loving family, of which he always spoke with pride and passion.

 

EARLY YEARS

Claude Dauphin was born in Houlgate in the Calvados region of Normandy on 10th June 1951; his father Guy owned and managed the family firm Guy Dauphin Environnement, based at Rocquancourt. He attended the secondary school in Bayeux, Ecole St Laurent, where by his own account he was a “non-conformist pupil”, leaving at the age of 16 to join his father’s scrap and waste business. Later he would routinely describe himself as the “son of a scrappie” and tell friends that his first task had been sorting rabbit skins, a sign of his life-long talent for self-deprecation.

Before long, however, he decided to set out on a business career of his own and moved to Paris to work for the commodities broker Brandeis Goldschmidt, a ring-dealing member of the London Metal Exchange, as a specialist trader in ferro-alloys. He had found his métier.

In the same period he found a wife. He met Catherine, who was working as a receptionist at a cancer hospital, for the first time at a winter shooting party in Normandy organised by their fathers, who were friends. They fell instantly in love and were married six months later in July 1976 at Vaucelles church in Caen, when Claude was 25 years old.

When they married, Claude resigned from his job in Paris and returned to Normandy to work again for his father. But within a year, he looked for a return to the world of commodities. He was introduced to Felix Posen, Head of Non-Ferrous Metals Trading and a founding partner at the global commodities group Marc Rich & Co., who was impressed by his dynamism and passion for the trade.

In 1977, Claude joined Marc Rich as Country Manager for Bolivia, based in La Paz. It was the start of an enduring love affair with the countries of Latin America. Claude acquired fluent, French-accented Spanish and rapidly became adept in wooing Bolivian metals producers large and small with a view to acquiring their offtake for the Marc Rich trading book. He was to return regularly to the region in his subsequent business career.

His success in La Paz led to promotion, initially to trade non-ferrous concentrates in New York, then to company HQ in Zug, Switzerland as Head of Lead and Zinc. In 1988, he rose further to join Marc Rich’s Executive Committee in the pivotal position of Head of Oil Trading, based in London – a tribute to his fundamental grasp of trading regardless of the materials traded.

The next few years were a turbulent period for the firm that had pioneered modern commodities trading. Following the controversy surrounding Marc Rich in the US, the company was under unrelenting international scrutiny and over time became consumed by internal politics.

 

FOUNDING TRAFIGURA

By 1992, Claude had had enough. When his father died in June of that year, he resigned from Marc Rich, ostensibly to run the family firm: GDE became part of a group with international ambitions named Ecore. But it was clear that enterprise would not hold his undivided attention for long. From the regularity of his calls to them, former colleagues could tell that he was longing to put a team together to start a new commodities trading business.

In March 1993, Trafigura Beheer BV was born – the name acquired from an existing registered company in Amsterdam. Its founding partners, alongside Claude, consisted of a large swathe of Marc Rich top brass: non-ferrous heads Danny Posen (son of Felix) and Antonio Cometti, oil traders Graham Sharp and Mark Crandall, and Chief Financial Officer Eric de Turckheim. It was a highly qualified team and established a financial foundation with remarkable speed.

Claude subsequently liked to joke that in some ways, leaving secure, rewarding and well-supported jobs at Marc Rich was the stupidest decision of their lives. The early years of Trafigura were hard. There was no infrastructure or administrative support. Competition was fierce and many commodity markets were depressed by over-supply. The company had to fight for scraps of business – transactions that were too small to interest the big guys. There were many heated arguments, with Claude in particular frequently growing frustrated that success did not come as quickly as he had envisaged.

The founders had decided to build a diversified business trading both oil and metals, based down the road from Zug in Lucerne. Oil trading, a relatively straightforward business to enter, made the company profitable from year one. But building a successful non-ferrous book was a different matter.

 

A UNIQUE CULTURE

It was in this formative period that Trafigura took on what was to become one of its enduring hallmarks: a unique culture of collegiality, attention to detail and extreme hard work. Board meetings and strategy discussions took place at weekends so as not to get in the way of day-to-day business. Ownership was distributed – no shareholder could own more than 20 percent of the company. There was no internal politics. Employees travelled in their own time. The founding partners, as one put it, “took out their own trash”.

These requirements all bore the very personal imprint of Claude Dauphin. He was the uncontested leader, but he needed a close-knit team around him and drove himself at least as hard as everyone else. He made intuitive judgments about the macro-environment and strategy while constantly gathering others’ views and obsessing about the tiniest micro-detail. Nothing, ever, was allowed to escape his attention for long and he had an especially sharp eye for errors.

It is a culture that is still fundamental to the business today, and is likely to remain so. Even in Claude’s last year he would regularly chair board committee meetings on subjects like IT on Saturday mornings or Sunday nights, and he continued to criss-cross the globe bombarding employees with emails demanding rapid response no matter what the time of day.

To many employees, he became an inspirational mentor, even a father figure. He seemed to know everyone in the company personally – including their foibles and their personal issues – and gave many of them affectionate nicknames. He cultivated a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and polyglot staff. His use of language – whether in his native French, fluent English or Spanish – was colloquial and often hilarious, if profane.

In fact it is impossible to overstate the influence of Claude’s character in shaping every aspect of Trafigura and its external impact. He set extraordinarily high standards for everything from employee attire to the wine served at company events. He demanded an extraordinary speed of decision-making and execution and an  equally forthright approach to identifying and correcting mistakes.

It was at his insistence that employees avoided any temptation to boast of success, remaining instead focused on delivering reliable customer service. It was his in-built iconoclasm that led him to challenge business conventions and to be viscerally and vocally intolerant of corporate waste, bureaucracy and flim-flam.

He saw himself, quite rightly, as an upstart, a challenger, someone who insisted on doing things his own way, or as he sometimes called it “the Trafigura way”. If he saw a company in a relevant business sector not performing well, he would be tempted to buy a stake, turf out the management and do it better. He was a great believer in staying focused on the core business of trading, on the basis of comparative advantage: he was proud of the specialist skills involved in doing the business well and was clear that they were utterly different from those involved in, say, running a mining empire or drilling for oil.

Perhaps even more remarkable was his almost complete lack of ego. He was allergic to personal publicity of any kind – even in the internal staff magazine. He preferred interaction in person or by cell-phone to written memos. The only public speech he ever made was at the ceremony where he received the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur as a French entrepreneur in 2001 – naturally without telling the world. His passion was for the business, not personal glory.

Above all, it was his charm, charisma and commitment that created the network of business relationships and partnerships that have made Trafigura what it is today, whether in Africa, Russia, the Middle East or Latin America or in the executive suites of Europe, the US and Asia. Claude possessed highly developed skills of persuasion and negotiation, coupled with an infectious humour and a love of the finer things of life. Potential partners often found these qualities, combined with a legendary persistence in pursuing them, irresistible. He was well known as a man of his word, someone who always delivered on his commitments.

 

SOUND BUSINESS STRATEGY

His approach to business strategy was more intuitive than analytical. He had a rare combination of a “big picture” vision for the business and attention to micro-detail. His attention span was as vast as his peripheral awareness of everything from geopolitics to gossip.

But the strategy was built on some very sound principles that have stood the test of time. They included diversification, or not putting all your eggs in one basket; long-term investment in logistics; and smart and unsentimental use of capital. He was certain that private company status and employee ownership constituted the right model for a trading company, as it ensured a perfect alignment between the interests of managers and owners, a prudent focus on risk management and proper attention to the long-term sustainability of the company.

Take diversification first. If oil trading carried the business for the first seven or eight years, it was never likely that Trafigura would abandon non-ferrous metals, the side of the business where three of the partners had started their careers, even if they occasionally discussed calling it a day. The decision to keep going was richly vindicated after the turn of the millennium with the growth in emerging markets and the take-off in demand for industrial minerals. The existence of two trading divisions made for a more diversified and stable business and remains a cornerstone of Trafigura’s strategy.

What also became apparent from early on was Claude’s focus on investment for the long term. Trafigura reinvested profits in building a network of logistical assets such as warehouses and oil storage facilities to support the trading business. Targeted infrastructure investments could help the company gain access to trading volumes, especially at a time of significant structural change in international trade flows.

The company’s first industrial investment took place in its very first year with the purchase of Cormin, a small company that operated warehouse facilities in Peru. With Cormin as a base, Trafigura was able to develop a substantial metals trading operation in Peru, subsequently expanding into Bolivia and Chile. Opportunistic investments followed in warehouses and oil storage farms in Latin America, Africa and ultimately all over the world.

 

ACCELERATED GROWTH

Three things happened in 2001 that set Claude and the team on a path of accelerated growth. First, the collapse of Enron signalled the advent of a period of greater commodity market volatility. It was a low-price environment in which miners went bust, oil majors were required to transform their business models, and there was profitable business for traders in managing inventories and balancing supply and demand.

For Trafigura, it was the moment when its logistical investments really started to pay off. The growth in emerging economies from China to Africa and Latin America created new imbalances in the market, and new global opportunities to trade for those with the necessary systems and infrastructure.

Second, there was an acceleration in demand for energy and industrial raw materials as the emerging economies embarked on a new path of growth, led by China. This was a wave which Trafigura and a small number of other trading houses were well positioned to surf in the ensuing years. The numbers tell the story: Trafigura’s revenues rose from less than USD 10bn in 2001 to well over 12 times that a decade later, with net profits and shareholder equity growing by similar leaps and bounds.

Third, Claude bolstered his team by hiring a number of individuals with new skill-sets, including a financial and derivatives specialist named Jeremy Weir. Following his recruitment, the company restructured its non-ferrous book splitting physical trading from the use of derivatives to hedge physical transactions.

Finally, Trafigura had found the formula to succeed in the metals markets. At the same time, as if to emphasise the increased sophistication of its approach, the company established an investment subsidiary, Galena Asset Management, providing third-party investors with a platform to invest in commodity derivatives markets alongside Trafigura. Jeremy was later appointed Claude’s successor in the role of Trafigura CEO in March 2014.  

The pace of growth Trafigura established in these years was phenomenal, and while price and general demand growth offered a partial explanation for the numbers, they also reflected the relentless drive of Claude Dauphin.

 

AN UNHAPPY CHAIN OF EVENTS

Handling such growth also posed new management challenges for a private, shareholder-owned company with a preference for discretion. So when something went very publicly wrong with one of its operations – in the 2006 waste-dumping incident in Ivory Coast – Trafigura was woefully ill-prepared.

Enough has been written about this extremely unhappy chain of events, in which a contractor working for Trafigura illegally dumped residual waste from a time-chartered tanker, the Probo Koala, at a series of landfill sites around the port of Abidjan, causing residents to complain of flu-like symptoms and others to allege more harmful effects. The resulting international outcry and legal cases continued for years.

This was undoubtedly the darkest period of Claude’s career. Anyone who knew him also knew that he was an individual who cared deeply about people. The suggestion that Trafigura was indirectly responsible for harm to poor residents of an African city pained him deeply, and he decided to lead a company delegation including medical experts and equipment to the Ivory Coast to see what could be done to help.

Unfortunately in the political circumstances, the arrival of the Trafigura delegation attracted unwelcome attention: Claude and two colleagues were seized and placed under house arrest, then transferred to a prison where they spent the next five months in a cell with locks on the inside to protect them from attack. It took protracted negotiations and the payment of a substantial sum in settlement to secure their release.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the main media focus during this affair was on the allegations of harm from the waste. For the company’s management, though, it was a struggle for survival, and one that it came through. Trafigura had continued support throughout from its extensive network of banks. In February 2007 the company was reunited with its Chairman and CEO who had all the while valiantly helped to run the company by mobile phone from his cell. 

For Claude the lessons learned as a result of the Probo Koala affair were profound. He realised that Trafigura was now of a scale and scope that required an improved approach to managing its impacts on the environment and society. To assist this change he initiated a shake-up in the company’s governance by establishing a Supervisory Board comprising senior non-executives and ex-employees with relevant experience, and ordered a new focus on health, safety, the environment and communities across the trading and asset divisions.

The company had long been skilled at managing key commercial and financial risks; it needed to pay greater and more systematic attention to potential operational and reputational risks. It was a theme that became a leitmotif for the rest of Claude’s career. He took a keen personal interest, for example, in the philanthropic work of the Trafigura Foundation, which supports sustainable development, education and health projects around the world supported by charity committees established in key company offices. On his last day of active service in Colombia, he was at pains to enquire about the business’s efforts to build relations with local communities.

 

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

After this affair, Trafigura continued on its growth trajectory as the commodities “super-cycle” continued. Claude was instinctively sceptical of this phrase, but he could see that industrial growth and urbanisation were spreading across the globe and could sense the further increases in demand that were likely to result. He continued to invest in infrastructure to take advantage of the changing market and acquired a number of mining assets – one of which, the MATSA mine in Spain, was to become the springboard in the final months of Claude’s life for a new mining investment joint venture with the Mubadala investment and development company of Abu Dhabi.

There was also a new focus on the down-stream segment of the oil industry. His chosen vehicle for this was a subsidiary with the name of Puma Energy. Trafigura had completed the acquisition of this company in 2000, with the initial intent of building a network of mid-stream assets such as storage facilities. But from 2010 on, as the oil majors restructured to focus their activities on exploration and production and started shedding their distribution networks, Claude saw the opportunity to expand down-stream by acquiring retail and wholesale distribution assets. It was a whole new chapter for the Group that would eventually lead to Puma Energy becoming a substantial company in its own right, with significant external shareholders and Trafigura – while still the largest investor – falling just below 50 percent.

The Puma story exemplified another characteristic of Claude’s leadership: the endless search for new sources of value that would complement Trafigura’s core business of trading, underpinned by a disciplined approach to capital investment.

In his eyes it was a delicate balancing act. He did not want to turn Trafigura into a major owner of producing assets such as mines or oil wells – they were fundamentally different businesses requiring different ownership models and financial structures. But he did want the firepower to take advantage of asset opportunities in support of trading, and he wanted to do so in a way that did not prejudice Trafigura’s private shareholding structure or over-stretch its financing base.

The approach he and his colleagues came up with was unique. It involved buying and developing assets but also taking opportunities to sell assets in whole or in part to other investors and recycling the capital. Focus is all, he told his traders. By all means buy an asset and make money out of it, but don’t fall in love with it. Stay nimble, stay liquid, stay hungry. It remained his motto to the end, as the cycle of asset investment and realisation continued.

Where Puma Energy led, Impala Terminals followed as Trafigura’s subsidiary investing in infrastructure to support trade in metals and minerals, including warehouse and port facilities mainly in Latin America and Africa. It was no accident that Claude was in Bogota, Colombia when he passed away: he was visiting a major Impala project there which has the potential to transform that country’s commercial transport infrastructure.

 

THE BATTLE WITH ILLNESS

Tragically, the last 18 months of Claude’s life were increasingly dominated by his hard-fought battle with illness – though never, until the very end, with any substantial impact on his appetite and capacity for work. He was diagnosed in March 2014 with lung cancer, and his response was typically vigorous, decisive and unsentimental. He summoned a meeting of the Trafigura Management Board and proposed to appoint Jeremy Weir as CEO while he would move up to Executive Chairman while receiving treatment.

Claude fought cancer with the same courage and indomitable spirit he applied to all his endeavours. He was determined to remain focused on his work; adamant, too, that he would do it his own way rather than follow medical advice to take a rest; if anything his travel schedule became more gruelling than ever.

Even in great pain or discomfort, never once did he complain. On the contrary: he retained his mordant sense of humour and redoubled his campaign against complacency or laziness in any part of the company. All the while, with typical attention to the minutest detail, he spent much time sharing the knowledge acquired during the course of an extraordinary working life to those whose job it would be to take the business forward after he was gone.

The end, when it came, was sudden, but also in a curious way fitting. Claude died on the last day of what, when annual results are published in December, should turn out to be a highly successful financial year for the company he created; at a time of fresh upheaval in commodity markets from which Trafigura was well positioned to benefit; and in a country which had become a showcase for his passionate approach to investment in infrastructure that advances trade.

He is mourned by his widow Catherine; his children Aurélie, Guillaume and Charlotte; and by his five young grandchildren Maya, Alexander, Farah, Sebastian and Victoria and other members of his family. He will be sorely missed by colleagues present and past, business partners, and by his extraordinary network of friends and admirers around the world.

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