A conversation with Alex Stewart, co-founder of Abercore

Hello Alex, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. First, can you tell me how you got into commodities?

After graduating from Durham University I delivered a thirty-foot sailing boat from the UK to New Zealand. There were three of us on board, it took about six months. When I got back to London I felt I had to do something that involved an element of travel. I was less interested in the financial markets, but I liked to understand how things get from A to B—physical things. That is what attracted me to the business.

Please tell me a little bit about Abercore. What were your motivations for starting up a new company?

My co-founders and I were all previously traders at Czarnikow. Over time we could see that the big sugar producers were changing the way they were doing business. They were increasingly concerned about transparency and traceability, not only in the sense of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), but also in knowing where their sugar was going, how the transaction was being executed and how they may be able to extract more value from it. We began to see similar trends coming from the consumer too.

However, although both sides increasingly wanted to interact directly, they didn’t always have the expertise or the tools to do it. Yes, a consumer can buy direct, but what exactly does that entail in terms of documents, accountancy, risk management, pricing, hedging etc., and also in terms of where you source the sugar from?

We set up Abercore in 2013 to help producers and consumers achieve their goals of executing direct business.

Where did the capital come from to start the business, and where does the finance come from to keep it going?

Our vision with Abercore was to establish a company that was predominantly focused on advisory services to producers but with a trading arm that could complement this advisory business. For example, we might be working in an advisory capacity marketing sugar for a European client, and a buyer in Africa would come to us with a specific requirement that our client couldn’t meet. In this instance the advisory work could translate into trading opportunities.

We each put our own cash into the company at the outset and as the business grows we have developed a relationship with NatWest, and they now finance our proprietary business. We have the financial ability to manage our own physical and futures transactions, although perhaps not on the scale of some of the trade houses. But then we don’t want to be a traditional trade house.

Why do you concentrate on Africa?

Africa is hugely exciting. By 2050 Africa’s population is predicted to grow by 1.3 billion people. That is the size of India. India consumes 25 million mt of sugar each year—so you are talking of consumption potentially increasing by that much. It is a huge growth area. There is so much opportunity.

People tend to group the fifty-four countries in Africa as one market, but each one has different trade agreements, different customs requirements, different everything. Our local knowledge gives us a huge edge over our competitors. 

What are the specific challenges in Africa?

Risk is the biggest challenge—risk in three forms: country, counterparty and competitor. You have to know your client, your competitor and your local market.

As far as competition is concerned, the biggest change we have seen in the last five years is the growth of the local traders. Local, rather than multinational, traders now capture a lot of the trading opportunities. But this isn’t just limited to Africa; it is being replicated throughout the world. This is a big issue for the multinational trade houses.

But then everything is becoming more local. Look at the consumer side and what Heineken is doing for example: they want to source as much as possible of their raw materials for Africa from within Africa. It makes commercial and social sense, and the social aspect is becoming increasingly important.

To what extent are your clients concerned about social and environmental sustainability?

Different people have different views as to what is sustainable. Sustainability is often about employing the local population, and caring for the local social and physical environment, making sure that your workers are well treated and that revenue is flowing back to the local farmer or cane cutter. That can be more important than buying sugar with a sustainability certificate.

The multinational food manufacturers in Africa will ask for certified product while local, second tier food manufacturers may be less concerned about the social and economic impacts of their buying decisions. These local companies are increasing their market share because they produce at a price that consumers can afford. So price is very important for them, perhaps more so than sustainability.

Agricultural traders have been suffering recently. Do you think this is cyclical or structural?

If you are a big trade house and see a big deficit coming you can take big positions on the market, on both the futures and the physicals in anticipation. In my mind this is harder to do in a surplus market. And with many of the agricultural commodity markets having been in surplus for the past few years this has negatively impacted the trade houses’ bottom lines.

On a structural level, other people are now fulfilling the trade houses’ traditional role in providing finance and liquidity, and managing logistics. Producers are now willing to manage finance, freight, insurance, even hedging—all the things that once only trade houses did.

So it comes down to what the trade houses have left. They have cash to speculate. They have relationships. They have a global vision. They have analysis. And they have the ability to move huge volumes around the world. That will remain the case. But the competition [both from local traders and producers themselves] is growing.

What is the hardest thing about being a physical trader – and the best thing?

The answer is the same for both – clients! The best thing about the business is that it is real. We are involved in the movement of commodities around the world, and we are adding real value in term of getting food to consumers.

So you like what you do?

I love it!

Thank you Alex.

Disclaimer: Jonathan Kingsman’s son Timothy works for Abercore


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