Executive Insights

A SA billionaire is on his way out – the stormy career of Glencore's Ivan Glasenberg

Business Insider SA
Glencore International CEO Ivan Glasenberg (Sergei, Getty Images)
  • After 36 years with Glencore, its CEO Ivan Glasenberg announced he will retire next year.
  • The Joburg-born son of a luggage importer, he helped built the world's biggest commodity trading firm. 
  • But his career has seen some controversy.
  • For more articles, go to wwwBusinessInsider.co.za.

On Friday, the South African-born CEO of Glencore, Ivan Glasenberg, announced that he will retire in the first half of 2021.

The 63-year old is CEO of the world’s biggest commodity trading firm. Glencore buys and sells coal and other commodities, and also owns a number of mines. It is one of the top coal exporters in South Africa.

He was with the company for 36 years. He will be succeeded by Gary Nagle, who is currently head of the company's coal division. Nagle is a South African, and according to The Sydney Morning Herald, known as a "mini Ivan"  - like Glasenberg, he also studied accounting at the University of Witwatersrand, for example.

Nagle will have his work cut out for him - Glencore is currently being investigating by regulators for alleged corruption and bribery. The company - according to a Carbon Majors report, Glencore was among the top 50 greenhouse gas emitters for the period between from 1988 to 2015  - has also pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Glasenberg has earned a reputation as an aggressive workaholic who lives for dealmaking.

According to Forbes, Glasenberg is number 804 on the world billionaire list. He’s currently worth $4.6 billion (R70 billion) – compared to Richemont’s Johann Rupert ($6.5 billion), Nicky Oppenheimer ($7.8 billion) and Patrice Motsepe ($2.6 billion).

His career has been tumultuous - here’s how it unfolded:

He was not a teacher’s pet

One of four children, he grew up in Illovo in Johannesburg. His Lithuanian father was a manufacturer and importer of luggage, Mail & Guardian reported. His mother was South African and grew up in Springs. He matriculated from Hyde Park High School in 1974.  His geography teacher Kathy Caselli-Thomson told the Sunday Times that her student was "not a terribly shy person and did not always accept that the teacher was correct". 

He made an important connection at Wits – who ended up with a knife in his back

Glasenberg studied accountancy at the University of Witwatersrand.

Here he befriended Mick Davis, who was a lecturer at the time.

Davis would eventually become CEO of the resources group Xstrata. Six years ago, Davis and Glasenberg announced that they would merge their companies, and Davis was promised the CEO position of the new entity.

But as the merger unfolded, a ruthless Glasenberg shoved Davis aside and assumed the CEO position. Davis left the company.

He became interested in commodities trading due to candle wax

After Wits, he did his articles at the Joburg firm Nexia Levitt Kirson. During this time, he became interested in commodity trading.

"I observed a man sourcing candle wax from South America and selling it to Japan,” he said in an article. "I thought, 'That's unbelievable. Talking on the phone in his office, that man made money moving candle wax from one country to another.' It really interested me."

His first boss was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list

In 1983, after getting an MBA from the University of Southern California he went to work for the commodity trader Marc Rich in New York. Glasenberg quickly climbed the ranks. Rich sent him back to South Africa to work on coal deals.

In the nineties, it emerged that Rich illegally traded with Iran - he appeared on the FBI's Most Wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden. Rich, who also evaded tax, was later pardoned by then-president Bill Clinton.

Glasenberg became CEO in 2002 and, with his colleagues, bought Rich’s stake in the company. They established a renamed firm called Glencore. 

He almost competed in the 1984 Olympics

Glasenberg is a keen race-walker and wanted to take part in the 1984 Olympics under Israel’s flag. In the end, he didn’t – either due to his South African nationality, according to some reports, or because his time wasn’t good enough.  

He lowered his neighbourhood’s taxes

Glasenberg married Elana Orelowitz, who came from Germiston. They have two children. The couple live in a house in Switzerland's wealthy Ruschlikon municipality. Glencore’s head office is nearby.

After Glencore was listed in 2011, Glasenberg earned a massive windfall. A part of the tax on his earnings went to his neighbourhood, and the amount was so large that they could lower their municipal taxes by 7%.

But not all the residents were happy – some objected, given his company’s involvement in African mines.

He’s a close associate of president Cyril Ramaphosa

Bloomberg reports that they have known each other for about 30 years. In 2005, Glencore chose Ramaphosa to be its black economic empowerment partner on the Shanduka Coal project. They also invested together in the Optimum coal mine.

Glencore was put under pressure to sell the Optimum coal mine to a company associated with the Guptas. AGlencore also recently got approval to buy Chevron’s oil refining and fuel service stations in South Africa for $1 billion (about R14 billion).

Glasenberg previously said Ramaphosa would be "a very good president".

Like Ramaphosa, he’s a member of the 5am club

He starts the day at 05:00 with running, cycling or swimming before he clocks in at the office at 07:00, according to the Daily Mail.

Read: Cyril Ramaphosa wakes up before 5am — and experts think you should too

He paid former UK premier Tony Blair over R14 million for a couple of hours’ work

Glasenberg called in Blair, a friend, to act as mediator for a day when Glencore and Xstrate negotiated their merger. Blair was paid $1 million for a couple of hours, the Daily Mail reported.

His company almost went bust

In 2015, the Chinese economy cooled down and commodity prices near imploded. Traders took massive bets against Glencore, which lost a large chunk of its value. The company had to raise emergency cash to stay afloat. Since then, the company has taken drastic action to recover, selling many of its assets and cutting costs. 

Glasenberg’s dealings in Africa have raised suspicions

Glencore’s association with the controversial Israeli commodities tycoon Dan Gertler, who is involved in mining in the DRC, has come under scrutiny in the US. Gertler is on the US sanction list for his alleged “opaque corrupt mining and oil deals”. Glencore apparently made payments to Gertler, which are now under US investigation.

The US government is also investigating Glencore's business dealings for potential violations in Venezuela and Nigeria since 2007.

Last year, the UK government also started a probe into Glencore over “suspicions of bribery” in December 2019, while the Swiss attorney-general also levelled a long list of bribery and corruption charges against Glencore for what it did in the DRC.

He is intensely private

Glasenberg rarely gives media interviews. One of the only ones he granted was with the University of Southern California’s magazine. And then he asked them to delete it from their website, The Guardian reported.

The article has corrected a reference to the number of interviews Glasenberg has extended, clarified a reference to why Glencore is considered a top polluter, and to make clear that he lives in house, not a chalet.

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