China Dials Down Ambition to Challenge World’s Top Grain Traders


 Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Anyone seeking signs of shrinking Chinese ambitions in world agriculture markets need look no further than the inaugural speech of Jingtao Chi, tapped to run the global trading unit of the nation’s biggest food company.

While Chi, 53, vowed to serve clients both in China and globally during a live video beamed to Cofco International Ltd. offices from Kiev to Connecticut and Sao Paulo, he did so through an English interpreter.

The language barrier contrasts with predecessor Matt Jansen, an American who was snapped up by Cofco after soaring up the ranks of rival Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.. Jansen left last week after less than two years in the job.

It also hints at a greater focus on domestic Chinese business. Growth plans, which included aggressive acquisitions and a stock-market listing of a separate international trading house, are on hold for now, according to people familiar with company strategy.

Major new priorities include serving the procurement needs of its Beijing-based parent Cofco Corp., one of the the world’s largest buyers of food commodities such as soybeans, the people said, asking not to be identified as the comments involve internal company matters.

Intensive Lessons

Chi, who’s promised to take intensive language lessons and likes to go by the name Johnny, told staff in his speech from Geneva on Friday that Cofco International plans to serve “customers in both the global and China market,” according to a statement released Monday. But in a shift in emphasis, he also highlighted a focus on domestic Chinese supply.

“Our goal is to create a vertically integrated global agri-commodities supply chain, driven by Cofco’s dominant position in China as the biggest trader in the largest agri-import market in the world,” Chi said.

It’s a change in tone from the global ambitions under the leadership of former Chairman Frank Ning, now at Sinochem Group, and Jansen, his star hire as chief executive officer. The American was appointed with a mandate to create an international trading giant with the global heft and reach to take on the biggest foodstuffs traders, ADM, Bunge Ltd. Cargill Ltd. and Louis Dreyfus Co., known collectively as the ABCDs, and Glencore Corp.

To do that, he needed an army of experienced traders and executives who spoke in English, the international language of commodity business and trade, as well as those able to talk in Mandarin with the top brass at Cofco Corp.

Buying Spree

Jansen inherited a $4 billion buying spree that saw Cofco take control of Hong Kong-based Noble Group Ltd.’s agritrading business, as well as Dutch trader Nidera BV. Those deals have run into trouble, including a series of costly scandals uncovered by Cofco at Nidera and tough market conditions for Noble.

Jansen submitted his resignation last week to Cofco International Chairman Patrick Yu, due in part to tensions with Beijing over the growth plans, the people said. Jansen’s top trader, chief operating officer and second in charge, Kevin Brassington, has also gone.

Ning, “who put this deal together, is no longer at Cofco and his dream was to have the company go head-to-head with the ABCDs and Glencore,” said Swithun Still, director at Solaris Commodities in Morges, Switzerland. "Now with Matt Jansen and Kevin Brassington gone, my feeling is that their focus will be more on procurement than on being a global trade house."

Key Funders

There may be knock-on effects. The plan to list a trading unit, now stalled, was key for some of the financial institutions that backed Cofco’s acquisition of the agricultural assets of Noble and Nidera. The funders include Temasek, investment arm of Singapore’s government, Standard Chartered Plc’s private-equity arm and the World Bank’s International Finance Corp.

Cofco will concentrate on closing the purchase of the 49 percent of Nidera it doesn’t already own and fully integrating the Rotterdam-based business into its Cofco Agri unit in Geneva. The staggered acquisition has been beset with problems including a $200 million loss from a rogue trader and the discovery of a $150 million financial hole in Brazilian operations.

Thorough due diligence on the purchase is continuing, one of the people said.

Chi told staff that integration will accelerate, according to the Cofco statement. Joining the new CEO in Geneva as one of his top lieutenants is Lifeng Gu, previously based in China, one of the people said.

Chi has worked for Cofco for the past 14 years, first as a senior executive in charge of human resources, and then running the commercial operations. He holds an engineering degree, and previously worked for China Minmetals Corp., another state-owned commodities trader.

Keeping traders on board will be a top priority, one of the people said. Cofco has suffered high-profile departures in the past year including Victor Osle, former head of wheat trading, and Matt Halsall, who headed corn. Both left to join Freepoint Commodities LLC last year.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andy Hoffman in Geneva at ahoffman31@bloomberg.net, Javier Blas in London at jblas3@bloomberg.net, Isis Almeida in London at ialmeida3@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Herron at jherron9@bloomberg.net, Tony Barrett, Lynn Thomasson

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