A conversation with Jules Stow

Good afternoon, Jules. I believe that your father was a freight broker; did you get into the commodity business because of him?

Well remembered; my father was indeed a shipbroker and a director of the Baltic Exchange. The only career advice he gave me was to not go into shipbroking. For once, I followed his advice. I still focused on the city, sending over 300 application letters to various banks and brokerages in the hope of becoming a foreign exchange trader. I found a copy of one of the letters the other day. I was shocked at how punchy, pushy, aggressive, and arrogant I was at 21!

Goldman Sachs invited me for an interview (which didn’t translate into a job offer). While in their office, I met their one and only commodity trader (at that time). It sparked my interest in commodities. My father was friendly with the CEO of ED&F Man, and I had been at school with his son, Andrew. I applied to EDF Man as a sugar trader, but they turned me down because of my lack of language skills.

My brother-in-law told me that Czarnikow was looking for trainee sugar traders. I applied, and they gave me the job. They also gave me responsibility right from the first day. I loved it. I stayed with them for ten years.

After an initial period in London, Czarnikow sent me to Singapore, where their office handled Queensland’s sugar exports. There were only four of us in the office, and one of those other three, Peggy, still works there. She just celebrated her 50th year with the company.

After a few years in Singapore, I moved back to London, where I looked after Czarnikow’s Moscow office, but from London.

A few years later, ED&F Man offered me a job to return to Singapore to manage their Asian trading book. I had just turned thirty and viewed it as an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.

As a company, Czarnikow prioritized client relationships; they always put their clients first. EDF Man were pure traders, and it was, I felt, a more transactional environment. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with their approach, and during the four years I was with them, I slowly fell out of love with physical trading.

In 2008, Barclays Capital offered me a derivative-trading position in Singapore and then London. I took it and stayed with them for about four great years before the bank ran into difficulties in copper and wound down the commodities business. I jumped across to Standard Chartered. They had about five traders on their commodities desk, but facing regulatory headwinds, they, too, wound down the size of their trading business after three years.

I found a position with Oak Capital in the City. They were market makers in oil, looking to expand into agricultural markets. They liked to move quickly, jobbing in and out of the market. I was more of a long-term trader who entered the market based on my perception of market fundamentals – and I held a position even if the market went against me in the short term. They weren’t comfortable with that. Our trading philosophies were a mismatch.

While at Oak Capital, I began to take an interest in quantitative trading. Quant trading involves using computer algorithms and programs—based on mathematical models—to identify and capitalize on trading opportunities. It consists of researching historical data to identify patterns and profit opportunities.

I felt that I was too emotional as a trader. I loved the idea of taking emotion out of my trading and trusting the algorithms. I started off down the rabbit hole!

Seasonality is a big part of agriculture, which is a natural fit with algorithms – and I did a lot of work on calendar spreads and relative value. I set up my own business running and designing systematic trading strategies for small hedge funds. The systems struggled during the Trump years when many historical patterns broke down. I then ran into Covid and lockdown.

I had a long hard think about what I wanted to do. I was in my late forties and realized I didn’t want to trade anymore. I think it is an age thing. Trading is a stressful business, but you only realize just how stressful when you stop.

A headhunter friend asked me what I enjoyed about trading – what excited me. I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t think of anything!

As we talked, I realized that the time I most enjoyed in my career was when I was at Czarnikow, building relationships and finding solutions for our clients. You don’t have that on the derivative side of the business.

My friend suggested that my interpersonal skills and experience would be well suited to headhunting, and I sought out the advice of Jakob Bloch at Commodity Appointments who I had been in a process with some years back. He confirmed that view and invited me to join him at CA – and here I am!

Commodity traders are primarily young. They have a limited shelf-life. You reinvented yourself as a headhunter, but what do you recommend other traders do when they get too old to trade?

I consider myself very lucky to have somehow solved that puzzle. I have just turned 50, and I am now seeing CVs from friends and former colleagues my age. The funnel narrows as you swim towards the top.

I think older traders need to identify which aspect of their job they genuinely enjoy and then orientate themselves in that direction. If like me, they decide that they don’t want to do it anymore, I suggest they consider moving on to something else.

It might sound negative, but it isn’t. It is incredibly positive. Traders, particularly physical traders, are great entrepreneurs. Trading is an entrepreneurial business that you must look at holistically. Every time you do something, you must ask what effect it will have on other parts of the supply chain.

So, my advice would be to see what business you want to be involved in and start it! You have the skills you need, so decide which niche interests you.

Are you a headhunter or a recruitment consultant?

I am a headhunter. As with any business, there is a spectrum. At one end, you have the uber-high-end individuals. On the other, you may be placing temps.

Commodity Appointments is a relatively boutique firm where we concentrate on the higher end of the spectrum. It is more of a numbers game if you come into recruiting straight out of university. In my situation, I try to utilize the network I developed in my earlier career. My edge is that I have sat in the seats of the clients and the candidates. It helps the conversation.

We are a commodity-specialist firm, and we only operate within commodities. We specialize in the front office, typically traders – especially physical traders. We have strong power, gas, and utilities networks, and I bring experience from agriculture and financial institutions. If you are a senior trader, you would probably want someone with similar experience to represent you. If you are a 25-year-old making your first job move, you would probably want someone of a similar age and understanding who is more relatable and relevant to you.

Apart from experience, what skills do you need as a headhunter?

Emotional Intelligence and the ability to empathize – to listen and not just hear what people tell you. You can never have a bad conversation, even if it eventually comes to nothing. The more data points you have, the better. Each talk is a data point. A big part of headhunting is joining those dots.

We are all different, so it is a matter of making the most of your skill sets. I am quite an affable guy, and I enjoy chatting with people. That’s my thing. Other headhunters may be more quantitative and analytical. You don’t have to be a particular person, but it is a people business. You can’t rub people up the wrong way – you wouldn’t last long!

Talk me through the process.

Most people misunderstand what a headhunter does. They look at it from the candidate’s point of view and think that a headhunter can magic them up a job. But that’s not how it works. It is the opposite.

The hiring clients drive the process. They contract us on a retained or contingency/success basis. If a client doesn’t retain us, we will at least want exclusivity. It doesn’t look good on me if I am the fifth headhunter to call a candidate about the same position.

We will sit with the client to work out what skills and experience they are seeking. There will sometimes be a job description, but the HR department often writes job descriptions with only an arm’s length idea of what is needed.

I prefer to sit with the head of the desk or with the person to whom the candidate will ultimately report. I need to understand the firm’s culture, the team dynamics, the essential skills, and the nice-to-haves. We will then put together a list of candidates and approach them to see if they are willing to move.

Being prepared to move is an important issue, particularly with senior people. They will be reluctant to move to a firm that might not have a long-term commitment to the business. A bird-in-the-hand is worth two in the bush.

I think of a candidate list as a colouring book that hasn’t been coloured in. My job is to colour it in –  to provide the information that you don’t see on a cv and which might not naturally come out in an interview. I sometimes feel a bit like a priest. Candidates tell me stuff they wouldn’t tell colleagues or competitors, and I must treat that in confidence. It adds colour and detail to a profile, and my job is to try and impart that as successfully as possible to the client.

Is headhunting a competitive business?

Yes and no. The advent of LinkedIn has made some aspects of the job more straightforward and, therefore, more competitive. There are few barriers to entry in headhunting.  Over the past few years, some large companies have employed people from headhunting firms to do in-house recruitment, but as far as I can see, many still engage headhunters anyway.

Some hedge funds don’t care whether everyone knows if they are looking for people and will simultaneously give the task to half a dozen headhunters and post the vacancy on LinkedIn and their website. However, the less transactional clients will generally only work through one headhunter they trust. It brings it all back to the essence of the job, which is the power of personal relationships. You may have 10,000 connections on LinkedIn, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you have at least some degree of connection on a personal level.

Your description sounds like what I used to do when I was broking physical cargoes. You broker people – but it is the same. I tend to avoid conflict and prefer physical broking to trading. With broking, you look for a win-win situation where everyone is happy – like what you were doing at Czarnikow – while as a physical trader, you ultimately have winners and losers. It makes me wonder whether you would have been better as a broker than as a trader – and that you may have missed your true vocation.

Your analogy of a broker is a good one. I happily chat with people all day long with no objective other than to try and find out what the employment market is doing – who is moving where, which firms are doing well – that sort of thing. When you were a broker, and someone came to you with a cargo to sell, you would already have a short list of potential buyers. The same applies to me. When a client approaches me with an open position, I already know who might fill it.

Have I been in the wrong job? It is almost too depressing to think about it, but I don’t think so. I enjoyed my experience as a physical trader, working with clients to get the most out of the market. I don’t think trading has to be transactional. I moved on to derivatives and loved it, perhaps because the market, not a particular client, was on the other side of the trade. There is no conflict when the market is your counterparty.

Was I any good as a derivatives trader? I was good enough to last as long as I did. If you are bad at it, you don’t stay more than a few months. But, on the other hand, if I had been excellent at it, I would have retired by now.

I feel lucky to have come into headhunting. I don’t think I should have transitioned into it sooner, as that would have meant missing out on something else. I am unusual to have come out of trading into headhunting. My experience as a trader helps me enormously in my current role. I think I am a better headhunter for having been a trader.

So, if you are a trader wondering whether to shift across to headhunting, I would advise looking at it closely. You would likely have a lot to offer.

 How does a headhunter get paid?

It varies between firms, but the employer generally pays a percentage of the first-year compensation package, including a signing-on fee if there is one. We prefer to concentrate on a few high-paying positions and do them well rather than doing many smaller ones.

 Could you describe a typical day?

I never looked at my diary when trading unless I was travelling somewhere. I knew when the market opened and closed, and that was enough. My working life now is divided into half-hour chunks. I spend most of my day speaking to people via video conference or telephone. I don’t know what life was like before Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but I suspect you just picked up the phone and called people. Now, I schedule most of my conversations.

Technology has set me free as I can now work between home and the office, but it is easy to get holed up and become a technology prisoner. It is essential to meet people in person, even without a specific reason. The best conversations I have are with people I meet for a coffee where there is no agenda. There is no substitute for face-to-face discussions.

I spend a couple of hours daily on video calls, but I haven’t swapped my trading screen for a video one. As a trader, you are a slave to your screen. I am glad to have left that behind.

I do my research. I constantly work to broaden my network, turn my second-level contacts into first-level ones, and learn about new markets like energy, power, and gas.

 Your company handles recruitment across metals, energy and ags. Are ag traders different from metals and energy traders?

I prefer to divide the market between derivative traders and physical traders. I think that physical agricultural commodity people are a breed apart. Energy guys have a confident swagger – and more of a dangerous look behind their eyes!

Most physical traders are social. They must be to get business done with their clients – real people. Most derivative traders don’t deal with people, just their market screens or OTC brokers. And any OTC broker will tell you they don’t get treated like real people!

What positions are employers looking to fill now – data scientists, programmers, sustainability professionals?

I see a great deal of interest in quants and data scientists. Commodity markets are booming while investors are looking to diversify their portfolios – the two are interrelated. Some funds are struggling to deploy some of their inflows and looking to diversify into commodities and agriculture.

We see a lot of demand, but it is a small talent pool. When a hedge wants an agri-commodities quant, there aren’t many people to choose from simply because it’s such a young sector.

The funds do realize that commodity markets are different. There is no point in taking a quant off, say, crypto and asking them to build a model around cocoa. They need someone who understands the underlying nature of the agricultural markets. It is a challenge to find that talent.

The commodity business has – or had – a reputation for being male-dominated – is that changing?

Yes, it is. First, companies are under pressure to employ more women. Second, women look at commodities differently than in the past. It is a bit of a snowball effect. More women are applying to the sector because it is becoming less male-dominated. The more women join, the more women want to join. It is self-reinforcing.

There are three “buts”.

The first is that the process will take time. Finding women with the required experience to fill senior roles is sometimes challenging. It will change as women work their way up the ranks.

The second is that women are sometimes less flexible geographically than men. We still have some way to go before it becomes the norm for men to give up a job to follow their partners to another country. Some women may be more reluctant to move countries if it means their children must change schools. It is becoming less so, but men may prioritize their careers while women may prioritize stable family life. Geographic flexibility is essential in our business.

The third follows from the second – women may be more risk averse than men when changing jobs. We had a recent search where a woman was the best candidate by far, but she decided not to take the risk of jumping.

When I joined the business thirty years ago, there were few female traders. That is no longer the case.

What advice would you give to a young person thinking of getting into the agricultural supply chain business – not just trading?

It follows my previous remarks. I would advise them to take every opportunity they get! If you are unsure about taking a new position – for example, if it means moving – do it! If it feels like an opportunity, take it. Nothing is forever. You can usually find your way back if it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t necessarily mean changing companies. If your boss is looking for volunteers for a new position or venture, stick your hand up!

And for someone already in the sector looking to change jobs?

First, identify what makes you stand out and then capitalize on it. Ask yourself what your edge is.

Second, identify any areas of weakness and take measures to improve them, for example, by taking night classes. Never stop learning and never stop asking questions. Continually improve your skills.

What would your 21-year-old self think about what you have done and who you are now?

When I was 21, I never really looked that far ahead. When I started in the business, I never asked myself where I would be in ten years, let alone thirty!

Another way of looking at the question is to ask, “Knowing what I know now, would I have done anything differently?” The answer to that is a solid “No.” I have enjoyed every bit of my career – admittedly, some more than others. Each experience has given me a different point of view and insight. I am lucky.

I have friends who joined Czarnikow at the same time as I did and are still there. They have had fantastic careers and are probably financially better off than me. I could have stayed at Czarnikow, and I would have been happy. But I am glad I didn’t. I liked the variety and the challenges that my career has offered me.

I am not one for looking back and wishing I wish I had done something differently. It’s gone. It’s happened. Move on.

In saying that, I realize I am more of a trader than I thought. Don’t beat yourself up over past mistakes. Learn from them and look ahead for new opportunities.

Thank you, Jules, for your time and input.

This conversation is part of the Commodity Professions – The People Behind the Trade series.

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