LONDON (Reuters) - When Claude Dauphin, the billionaire founder of Trafigura, was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, few doubted he would entirely abandon the fierce work ethic or grueling travel that helped him build one of the world’s biggest commodity traders.
In fact, according to some insiders, he barely slowed down in the months prior to his death this week in Bogota, Colombia, where he went to inspect the firm’s facilities.
Over the past 18 months, the 64-year-old Frenchman worked hard, hoping to ensure a smooth succession, naming a new chief executive and often bringing senior managers with him on trips to hand over the key relationships he won over four decades in the business, according to sources.
“His idea was simple. My days are numbered. But I want the company to continue for many more decades,” according to one senior Trafigura executive. Dauphin, who died on Wednesday, is survived by his wife and three children.
Yet there is also little doubt his death leaves Trafigura with a daunting task: How to keep it growing without the founder, whose demand for performance and decades of unrivaled contacts built it into an enterprise with $125 billion in annual revenue that trades more oil, copper and coal than almost any firm.
As Dauphin jetted around the world in Trafigura’s corporate plane between chemotherapy injections, the impeccably dressed Frenchman didn’t just pack his travel schedule with courtesy visits and ceremonial meetings. He kept making deals.
Weeks before dying, Dauphin traveled to Nigeria to clinch an oil swaps contract with the new government of President Muhammadu Buhari, according to sources.
In Angola, where Dauphin enjoyed close relations with the government of long-serving President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Trafigura reached an agreement this summer to maintain its status as the main supplier of refined products, despite fierce competition.
“Not only didn’t Claude retreat to an island or slow down, he increased the pace,” said an longtime acquaintance.
Dauphin handed the CEO role to former risk manager Jeremy Weir, an ex-geologist, 18 months ago, and encouraged a more collective leadership structure to prepare for the transition, sources say.
Even so, he remained a towering figure within the company.
“Let’s be completely honest. You can be intellectually attuned to the idea that one day the top man might be gone, but in reality you are never fully ready when it comes,” the source said.
Sources at Trafigura’s rivals remember Dauphin as a formidable competitor. Some argue that transferring relationships and knowledge is never straightforward.
“It takes decades to build such relations. Sometimes they are just not transferable,” an executive at a competitor said.
Craig Pirrong, a U.S. academic who spent a number of days inside Trafigura’s offices in the summer of 2013 speaking to major trading desk heads and executives said: “If Trafigura was publicly traded, the stock probably would have been down today.”
Trafigura’s publicly traded bonds NL103307392=OCBC XS091820099=TE have shot up since August due to a steep decline in commodities prices and as listed rival Glencore Plc (GLEN.L) came under shareholder pressure.
On Wednesday, the yields widened further but on Thursday and Friday they dropped steeply.
On Thursday, Trafigura also closed a heavily oversubscribed $2.2 billion loan, supported by 28 banks, highlighting the strong relationship with lenders that Dauphin built since founding the firm in 1993, when he broke away from famed trader and ex-U.S. fugitive Marc Rich.
With a 20 percent stake in the company, Dauphin was France’s 32nd richest person with a net worth of $1.4 billion, according to Forbes.
Rivals will watch Trafigura more closely in the coming months as it becomes the first modern-day trading house to make a full transition. Rivals from Glencore to Mercuria are still run by the charismatic traders who founded and expanded them.
Others who have attempted to hand over the reins of power found the process tough.
Richard Elman, the founder of Hong Kong-based trader Noble Group Ltd (NOBG.SI), stepped down as CEO in 2010 after nearly 25 years running the firm. He then went through two successors in two years.
French trading firm Louis Dreyfus, closely controlled by the founding family, has been marked recently by a series of lengthy and embarrassing efforts to find a permanent CEO.
While Weir, the new Trafigura CEO, has not told staff whether he will retain Dauphin’s strict dress code, he is sticking with the core strategy that helped it boost revenue over the past decade: buy assets but sell them when the price is right.
“It is important not to fall in love with assets,” he said in April, while maintaining Dauphin’s stance that private ownership was the best option for trading houses.
That view will likely be strengthened as management at publicly listed firms like Noble and Glencore have come under shareholder pressure since their shares collapsed this year.
Dauphin himself was saying a team effort would be needed to develop Trafigura in the future. “In the 1980s, all you needed to be a successful trader was to speak several languages. These days you have to have a mountain of technical knowledge,” he once said, according to an acquaintance.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Leff; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Dale Hudson