LONDON (Reuters) - Claude Dauphin, the powerful and influential oil and metals trader who built Trafigura into one of the world’s biggest commodity players, died on Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 64.
The famously hardworking and secretive Frenchman, who shunned publicity throughout his four-decade career, died in Bogota, Colombia, where he was inspecting Trafigura’s new facilities. He is survived by his wife and three children, the Swiss-based company said in a statement.
A former senior executive with famed trader and ex-U.S. fugitive Marc Rich, Dauphin was a towering figure in the commodity business, renowned for an exhaustive travel schedule, deep industry knowledge and a demanding work ethic - as well as an intense chain-smoking habit. He was also France’s 32nd richest person with a net worth of $1.4 billion, according to Forbes.
He stepped down as chief executive of Trafigura for medical treatment last year, after overseeing the firm’s 20-year expansion from a niche Latin America metals dealer to one of the three largest commodity traders, moving 3 percent of the world’s oil with turnover of more than $120 billion in recent years - a more than 10-fold increase from a decade earlier.
Jeremy Weir, a mild-mannered Australian geologist with a banking background, has been running the company as CEO since then, although Dauphin remained executive chairman and continued to travel.
“He fought very hard. He never stopped,” one of Trafigura’s employees said. The company said his “capacity for hard work and energy were undiminished by his illness.”
The trip to Colombia returned Dauphin to the region that launched his career. In 1977, after working several years in France for his father’s scrap metals firm and as a metals broker, he moved to Bolivia to work for Rich, the father of modern oil trading. Within about a decade he had moved up to become the firm’s chief oil trader.
As Rich’s business suffered in the 1990s because of wrong bets in the metals markets, many of his junior managers pushed through a buyout to oust Rich and rename the company Glencore.
But Dauphin, who spoke highly of Rich, chose to set up his own company in 1993, parting ways with former colleagues including Glencore’s current chief Ivan Glasenberg.
“He was a respected competitor. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends,” Glasenberg said through a spokesman.
Dauphin owned around 20 percent of Trafigura, which has a book value of around $6 billion and had a $1.1 billion net profit last year. The rest belongs to senior management.
Dauphin’s darkest days came when he spent almost six months behind bars in Ivory Coast in 2006-7 in pre-trial detention due to a dispute over toxic waste dumping.
Shortly after the material was dumped, residents of the city of Abidjan complained of illnesses. The government of Ivory Coast said 16 people died.
Trafigura said it entrusted the waste to a state-registered Ivorian company, Tommy, which dumped the material illegally at sites around Abidjan.
“We went to the Ivory Coast on a mission to help the people of Abidjan, and to find ourselves arrested and in jail as a result has been a terrible ordeal for ourselves and our families,” Dauphin said at the time.
Trafigura paid a $200 million settlement and the Ivory Coast prosecutor said that there was no evidence of any illegality or misconduct by any Trafigura staff.
Described by colleagues and rivals alike as a man of formidable drive, Dauphin was an enormous presence inside the company, known for delving deeply into his trader’s deals. Growth was fueled by his “entrepreneurial ambition, a
hands-on management style, and fierce attention to detail,” according to a biography published by Trafigura.
“He was held in awe by the people I spoke with,” said Craig Pirrong, a U.S. academic who spent days interviewing senior executives and traders - but not Dauphin - at Trafigura’s headquarters in 2013.
Dauphin over the past decade took a very different approach to developing his company to that of Glencore.
He wanted it to remain private and chose to sell stakes in various divisions to strategic partners, including in its mid-stream unit Puma to Angolan investors and in its mining assets to Abu Dhabi investment firm Mubadala.
Under Dauphin, Trafigura also expanded ties with Russia’s state oil firm Rosneft, becoming one of its biggest crude buyers, despite international sanctions.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Leff, editing by William Hardy and Tom Brown