The man helping to make metal sexy again

By Candice Krieger, February 23, 2012
Metal trader Robert Voss

Metal trader Robert Voss

Not many businessmen can claim to have attended a conference with Margaret Thatcher and spoken alongside US Republican Condoleezza Rice and Lord Stern, the influential climate-change expert. Metal expert Robert Voss can.

Mr Voss is the founder and managing director of metal traders, Voss International. And as president of Eurometrec, the European metal trade and recycling federation representing 10,000 companies throughout the EU - he is the only person to have held the position twice - the amiable chief is regarded as a leading authority on metal.

So what does he have to say about the surging industry - one of the few that has thrived since the downturn - that he has worked in for nearly four decades?

First up: the dwindling number of Jews in it. "Pre-1936 the centre of the metal industry was in Germany and London and the business, particularly in Germany, was predominantly Jewish and remained so for about 20 years. This has changed dramatically," says Mr Voss, a suave 59-year old. "The growth of multi-national corporations and internalisation has meant that small family-run Jewish businesses have been swallowed up. Even when I started there were a significant number of Jewish companies but this has dramatically reduced."

That said he acknowledges that a rising number of Jews are expressing an interest in the sector as a career - "metal has become sexy again." The industry has dominated the headlines of late due to the boom in - and theft of - recycled scrap metal, rising prices, and demand for gold.

No one has come up with a suitable alternative to metal

What makes it a safe haven in downturns? The sustained growth of emerging economies. He explains: "Metal is used in construction, power, telecommunications and automotive, and as long as the emerging economies continue to grow they are going to need these. This is combined with the fact that Asia, in particular China, doesn't have a huge wealth of intrinsic metals under the ground. It has to buy them.

"The demand for metals will remain high because the need is there." Gold is not only used for jewellery but also for electronics, and platinum is used in catalytic converters.

"People are looking at metal-free technology but so far, with the possible exception of optical fibres, noone has really come up with a suitable alternative whether it's to steel for building or to copper and aluminium for power generation and the transport of water, gas and oil. Cars are still made of steel and aluminium and the lead battery hasn't changed in 60 years. Therefore the future growth of metals, closely aligned to the development of emerging economies, is there for everyone to see."

Unsurprising then that his company, with a turnover of £50 million and operational in over 65 countries - it recently set up a subsidiary business in Kazakhstan - has been unaffected by the recession. "We've seen continued growth because there are always new markets. Vietnam wasn't a market five years ago. Now it is. Thirty years ago hardly anyone traded with China. Now look at the size of the market."

Mr Voss started his eponymous company in 1987. He is third generation in the metal business. His late-father had worked in partnership with Sir Sigmund Sternberg. "My father had died long before I graduated. I went to see 'Siggy' Sternberg after I decided that I wanted to go into advertising but he said go into the metal business so I followed his advice." A good call. He completed stints at Brookside Metal as a graduate trainee and Metramet, where he was a director, before setting up on his own. "I didn't want to look back at 60 and say: 'If only I had done that'."

Aged 28 he was elected to the council of the British Secondary Metals Association becoming their youngest ever president at 31.

Passionate about the industry Mr Voss is keen to encourage young traders into the business and believes Jews are well-suited to it. "The metal industry is known as 'the pendulum of the economy' - we swing and others follow. It reacts quickly to all world events.

"A bright young person with a quick and active mind will always get on in this business but often it is difficult to 'learn' to be a trader. I believe a trader has it in his blood and that is why I think it is so suitable to many young Jewish people."

Pressed on where to invest, he says: "Long-term, copper, aluminium and steel all have a strong future because the emerging economies will keep emerging, demand is there and supply is limited."

Surely it can't be all rosy? There must be challenges? "The internet. It hasn't helped people like us because today, everybody knows everything. When I started you could trade on people's ignorance. Now there is no ignorance. Anyone in the world can now have a live stream onto the London Metal Exchange."

And then there is the growing epidemic of scrap-metal theft. He says: "The one problem with increasing world prices of metals is the rise in theft of scrap metal. The industry as a whole is working hard with governments and police to stop the theft and make the sale of stolen material more difficult as well as urging them to increase the sentences handed down to thieves and I am pleased to say that governments are taking these matters seriously. The UK Government is reviewing the legislation governing the trading of scrap metal which is somewhat overdue. The main victim of metal theft is the metal industry itself."

Based in Hertfordshire, Mr Voss has travelled to over 70 countries for work including Africa, Pakistan and "Dubai in the 1970s when it was still a small fishing village."

Highlights include being stuck in Karachi airport, getting arrested in East Germany and losing his passport in Zaire. All of which he intends to one day chronicle in a book, perhaps alongside his meal at Number 10 with Margaret Thatcher. But first there is business to do and although "the idea of playing more golf (he plays off 16) is tempting" Mr Voss is as enthusiastic as ever. In April he will be sharing a stage with former-US President George W Bush in front of 3,000 people at a conference in Las Vegas. Another one for the book perhaps.

Last updated: 11:59am, February 23 2012