The two truckloads of metal that rolled out of Glencore International AG's Mopani Copper Mines in Zambia in February never made it to their destination at the Indian Ocean port of Durban, South Africa. Hijackers got to the trucks first, overcoming both the drivers and the satellite tracking system designed to disable the vehicles remotely in the event of an emergency.
Glencore, the world's largest commodities trader, faces risks ranging from robbery to strikes to government confiscation. The closely held Baar, Switzerland-based company operates on six continents and produces and trades billions of dollars of oil, coal, metals and grain every day.
Glencore also owns a controlling stake in publicly traded Xstrata PLC, the world's fifth-biggest mining company by revenue that bought Falconbridge last year, and 12 per cent of Moscow-based United Company Rusal, the biggest aluminum producer.
"Glencore is probably one of the best-run companies that, really, no one has ever heard of," says Phil Roantree, who helps manage £24.8-billion ($53.63-billion), including Glencore debt, at New Star Asset Management in London.
Earlier this year, the 10,000 miners Glencore employs at Mopani went on strike for a pay raise. Around the same time, the Bolivian government seized a Glencore tin smelter. In Russia, one of Glencore's partners in a $1-billion (U.S.) oil venture is under investigation for "illegal business activity." And Glencore, after being accused in 2005 by a United Nations commission of paying "illicit surcharges" to Saddam Hussein for Iraqi oil in 2001-02, is awaiting the conclusion of a Swiss criminal probe into such payments. The company denies any wrongdoing.
Glencore, which is now owned by a corps of senior executives, has, for most of its history, kept public disclosures to a minimum. Ivan Glasenberg, chief executive officer of Glencore since 2002, gave his last published interview - to an industry publication called Metal Bulletin - in 2003. He refused let any employees be interviewed for this article and denied access to his trading floors and industrial plants.
"Glencore is a company that plays its cards close to its chest," says Jonathan Pitkanen, an analyst at Aviva PLC's Morley Fund Management Ltd. unit in London, which oversees £55-billion in fixed-income assets, including Glencore debt.
The veil, however, is now lifting because Glencore is eager to secure its sources of metal, coal and oil by buying commodity producers - and it is issuing debt to do so. Glencore has raised $6.5-billion in the bond markets since 1996, forcing it to disclose financial details to investors and rating companies.
During the past several years, Glencore has acted more than ever like a publicly traded company. A person familiar with the company says it has even considered selling stock to the public. The bond prospectuses the company has issued since 2003 give an unprecedented amount of data on revenues, profits and its many partnerships with commodity producers.
The fact that Glencore is a private company allows it to make fast trading and acquisition decisions. "They don't spend much time in shareholder meetings," Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack says. "They spend their time doing business."
Last year, Glencore formed a commodity derivatives trading unit with Credit Suisse, through which the two firms are trading oil and metals futures contracts.
The executive team under Mr. Glasenberg is notable for its youth. Chief financial officer Steven Kalmin is 36 and joined the company in 1999. The co-heads of the aluminum division, Steven Blumgart and Gary Fegel, are both 34. The oil unit is run by Alex Beard, 39.
"The management at Glencore are among the most savvy and intelligent people around," says Dwight Anderson, 40, founder of Ospraie Management LLC, a $7-billion commodities hedge fund in New York that trades in the same markets as Glencore.
For a decade, Glencore's priority has been to buy assets to use in trading. It has spent $10-billion on acquisitions since 1995 and has been especially busy in the past year. In August, 2006, it paid an undisclosed amount for a 51-per-cent stake in a 75,000-barrel-a-day oil refinery in Colombia. Colombian partner Ecopetrol SA said in April that it would invest $2-billion in the plant along with Glencore to double production. The price of crude oil has almost tripled in the past five years and traded at $76.83 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday.
Glencore holds a 34-per-cent stake in Xstrata, worth $20.6-billion as of July 27. Glencore chairman Willy Strothotte, 63, is also chairman of Xstrata, and Mr. Glasenberg is a member of Xstrata's board.
Xstrata has net debt of $13.6-billion, according to the company's financial filings, equal to 21 per cent of its market capitalization. That compares with a ratio of 4.6 per cent for Australia's BHP Billiton Ltd., the world's largest miner, and 3.7 per cent for South Africa's Anglo American PLC, the second biggest, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
At a glance
Glencore - the name is an abbreviation of "global energy commodity resources" - has 2,000 employees in 50 offices in more than 40 countries - most out of Glencore's trading offices in Baar, Switzerland; London; Singapore; and Stamford, Conn.
Its Baar headquarters is in the Swiss canton of Zug, home to many global commodity companies taking advantage of the canton's low taxes and Swiss secrecy laws.
Glencore's industrial subsidiaries employ 50,000 people in 14 countries, according to a February presentation to prospective bond buyers. In addition, the company operates more than 100 ships and runs 50 oil tank farms worldwide. Glencore says 3 per cent of the world's oil is sold by its traders.
Customers for its metals include Sony Corp., the world's largest video-game console maker, and Volkswagen AG, Europe's biggest car maker.
Glencore was founded in 1974 by former fugitive financier Marc Rich, who sold out to the current owners in 1994. Mr. Rich was indicted in 1983 by U.S. Attorney and future New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani for tax evasion and buying oil from Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. He was pardoned in 2001 by President Bill Clinton, whose wife, Hillary, is also running for president.
Net income in the first quarter surged 84 per cent to $1.9-billion (U.S.) and revenue rose 21 per cent to $30-billion. Profit for 2006 was $5.3-billion on sales of $116-billion. Glencore's annual profit has increased more than fivefold since Ivan Glasenberg, 50, took the helm five years ago.