A Pioneer Leaves the Grain Trade

by Teresa Acklin
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An interview with André trader Brian Corke, who is retiring after 35 years of sourcing and marketing grains around the world

   Brian Corke has retired from André & Cie., thus bringing to a close a career in the international grain trade that has been notable for participating in some of the pioneering sourcing and marketing of wheat, other grain and feedstuffs.

   As a “sous-directeur” of André, equivalent to vice-president, Mr. Corke has guided transactions in wheat and other products that opened new markets for producing countries as well as new sources for buyers. He is particularly pleased with the relationships he has built with flour millers in many different countries based on understanding their specific needs, while also adhering to the André belief in serving both sellers and buyers, that this is essential to the development of a sound international trading business.

   Mr. Corke began his trading career in London in 1952 with R.E.B. Willcox & Company, which he described as “a small but very efficient trading house dealing in jute and jute goods and other articles from India and Pakistan.” Ronald Willcox, who headed the firm, was credited by Mr. Corke with providing him an early lesson in the importance of being of service to the people at both ends of a transaction, “a lesson,” he said, “which was to remain with me throughout all the years.” A similar bit of advice came from an early manager who constantly would remark, “Little fish are sweet,” meaning that giving careful attention to the smaller buyers can produce excellent returns.

A 35-Year Career with André

   In 1962, Mr. Corke joined the U.K. affiliate of André, European Grain & Shipping Ltd., starting a career that extended over 35 years. The André business in the U.K. at that time was headed by Arthur Juster, a man who was known as “king of the imported barley market.” This experience gave Mr. Corke a chance to see firsthand the opportunities in developing new origins when European Grain & Shipping imported the first French wheat for grinding by British mills.

   His initial responsibility in London focused on trade in vegetables oils, especially moving oil sourced from André crushing plants, as well as groundnut oil from India, Nigeria and the United States. He remembers participating in another first, the sale of European soybean oil to Iran.

   Mr. Corke pointed out that his association with the London office was in the time before Britain joined the European Community, and thus there was the opportunity for developing broad non-Commonwealth sources of ingredients for U.K. feed manufacturers. He recalled most vividly the development of a “big business” in wheat pollards and bran, sourcing from flour mills in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, the latter eager to establish non-French ties having just gained independence from France.

   His expertise in this area led further to sourcing of wheat millfeed from Seaboard Corp. mills in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Guyana for movement to England and other destinations. This business, which probably marked one of the greatest periods of international trade in millfeed, was largely in bags. It was Argentine mills that originated pelleted millfeed for export, and Mr. Corke became active in these transactions.

   Building on the millfeed trade, he developed an English market for rapeseed meal, which was originated from a number of countries around the world — Algeria, Chile, France, German, Italy, Pakistan and Poland. He also originated sunflower products from Argentina, Uruguay and even Japan “on liner vessels to some obscure U.K. ports, which seems unbelievable now in the context of E.U. restrictions.”

Selling Russian Wheat

   In February 1972, Mr. Corke transferred from London to André's head office in Lausanne, where he was assigned to the International Wheat Department and where he has been an active trader for the past 25 years. When he went to Lausanne, André was still the agent for the sale of Russian wheat to France and Switzerland. But it was in that memorable year that the former Soviet Union entered the world wheat market as a buyer in a series of mammoth transactions that changed the global wheat market forever.

   In the wake of that earth-shaking business, Mr. Corke embraced the André philosophy that success in international trading depends importantly “on flexibility in our outlook.” He said, “The secret seems to be flexibility, as so often buyers become sellers and vice versa.”

   He cited several examples of these reversals, such as Argentina importing wheat in 1973 and the company's domination of the South African origin in 1974 by selling to Mexico, Greece, Portugal and North Korea, “destinations that seem improbable now.”

   Another striking example of a country's transformation that Mr. Corke delighted in remembering was Saudi Arabia. In 1978, André sold bulk wheat for the first time to the newly-built government flour mill, comprising a small mixed cargo of hard red winter wheat, maize and meal with a discharge rate of 1,000 tonnes per day.

   As Saudi Arabia milling capacity expanded, André's sales expanded to 40,000-tonne lots of wheat. But he also was watching the Saudi domestic wheat crop expand, from hardly 3,000 tonnes in 1978 to 650,000 in 1983 and then to grow to the point that a large import customer transformed itself into a major source of export supplies.

   “We made our first Saudi wheat purchase in January 1986,” Mr. Corke recalled, “and thereafter we did our best to introduce this origin throughout the world.”

   In this undertaking, Mr. Corke remembered the conservatism of millers around the world who were unwilling to try wheat from this new and unaccustomed origin. He credited Piet Yap, managing director of P.T. Bogasari, Indonesia's huge flour milling enterprise, with having the courage to give Saudi wheat a try, although the initial sales were kept under wraps so as to avoid disturbing other sellers.

   “Finally, we were able to market this excellent wheat to 48 different countries,” Mr. Corke said. “And when this business came to a halt in September 1995 as the Saudis cut back on their wheat crop, you quickly saw millers in many countries who really missed this origin.”

   Mr. Corke believes that he has traded every wheat origin in the world. He cited several important destinations with which he has done business over the years, including North Korea, Iran and Yemen. He remembered many innovations, such as separate supplying of bags, twine and needles to countries that need to distribute wheat internally in bulk.

   “More recently,” he said, “we have supplied India-origin wheat in bulk and bags, in line with André's goal of supplying all the buyers' requirements, whatever that might be, and with the most competitive wheat suitable for specific needs.”

   In retiring from André, Mr. Corke expressed his thanks to the André family, “who were prepared to give us responsibility at a young age, while encouraging us to use our initiative to develop business.” He acknowledged the support of his wife and family and “the many friends who supported me over this quarter of a century in the international wheat business.”

   He added, “I was fortunate to be in a job where every day is different and where we have the chance to speak to and visit other countries and to fulfill such an important function in the world economy.”

   He and his family will be leaving Switzerland to re-establish their home in the U.K. Even after 25 years, Mr. Corke's English accent is unchanged.

Fourth generation of family at helm of Swiss trading business

   André & Cie S.A. is a family-owned and family-managed business. Now under the direction of the fourth generation of the André family, the business is managed at its top by a 10-member board of directors.

   Georges André, almost 90, is honorary chairman. He became head of the company in 1940, on his father's death, and was succeeded as chairman by his son, Henri, who now holds the chairmanship. Two of Henri's brothers, Eric, who is director-general in charge of transport and the company's machine tool business, and Pierre, who heads up human resources, also are members of the board of directors.

   A fourth André family member on the board is Mark Olivier, a non-executive director, and the son of Jean André, Georges' brother, who died in 1995. Georges and Jean jointly headed the company for four decades.

   The group traces its founding to 1877 when Georges R. André, then 21 years of age, decided to start his own grain trading company, being dissatisfied with how a small trading company he had joined in Lucerne was being operated and being unsuccessful in trying to buy the company himself. He originally used his father's name, H. André & Fils, and the business traded in grains and flour, as well as beans and pasta imported from Italy. The company even tried flour milling in its early days, but the mill burned down and the decision was made to focus on being reliable, astute suppliers to mills and other processors.

   Georges' son Henri joined his father in the fledgling firm in 1905, and it was the son who guided the business to expand beyond the French-speaking part of Switzerland to embrace the German speaking part. Henri was joined by his brother Paul, but the latter died in 1918.

   As World War I started in 1914, the business ranked as one of Switzerland's leading grain importers and dealers. It was as a result of the war, and Switzerland's needs to extend its sources of imported grains and feedstuffs, that André's operations were expanded to include most of the countries of western Europe.

   The founder, Georges André, retired in 1911, and so Henri, particularly after his brother Paul died, persuaded his brother-in-law, Alfred Demaurex, who was practicing law in Vevey, to give up his practice and to preside over the business jointly with him. The two brothers-in-law ran the firm together for two decades, until Henri's death in 1940. Alfred Demaurex retired from the board in 1974. Under the leadership of the two brothers-in-law, the business was expanded across the Atlantic into South America, especially Argentina.

   The Demaurex family presently has two members of the André & Cie. S.A. board of directors. They are Claude Demaurex, son of Alfred, and Yves Richard Demaurex, a grandson of Alfred, who is assistant to the chairman.

   Three other board members, all directors-general of major parts of the business, are Raymond Cretegny, who heads trading; Jacques-Louis Rochat, director-general and head of industry and South American trading; and Jean-Robert Terrier, director-general of finance and also chief financial officer.

   Mr. Cretegny, a well-known personality in the global grain trade, joined the André Group in 1985 from SGS, the Swiss-based inspection firm.