The commodities behemoth faced a crisis last year as prices of metals, grains, and petroleum products—as well as the company’s stock price—plummeted. A rare inside look at how the secretive Swiss giant survived and how it plans to thrive again in a post-boom world.
Shimmering below our eight-seater plane in the dazzling African light is a mammoth hole gouged out of the terrain of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From the air, the green and black hues offer just a hint of the huge mineral wealth lying under one of the poorest, most remote countries on earth.
Yet it is only after we have landed on a tiny airstrip and bumped along in an off-road vehicle for half an hour past mud-brick houses that the full extent of those riches becomes clear. From the rim of the pit, the rock 450 feet down at the bottom looks as if it has been drawn with neon Crayolas, its green popping against the deep-black earth.
“Some of the richest ore bodies anywhere are in Congo, and one of them is here,” says Pedro Quinteros, an engineer from Peru who has excavated minerals for decades on three continents and now serves as CEO of Mutanda Mining, the nine-year-old cobalt and copper facility we’re visiting. Here parts of the ore, he says, can be up to 30% copper.
“In my country it is 1% copper. In Chile it is less than 0.5% copper,” he says with a note of awe, peering down to the bottom of the wide pit, where 110-ton trucks scoop up the rock and soil and then rumble back to the top carrying their priceless haul. “I have never seen anything like it in my career.”
As unique as this bounty is, so, too, is the company that owns it: Glencore. To most regular folk, the company’s name is largely unknown, and that’s not by accident. The commodities behemoth’s headquarters are far from the frenzy of Wall Street and the City of London, in the sleepy, low-tax town of Baar, Switzerland, near Zurich.
In the quiet atmosphere inside Glencore’s four-floor glass-and-steel complex there, traders and managers move markets while looking out on rolling hills with cows grazing on them, the very picture of a Swiss chocolate box; indeed, visitors are offered fine Swiss chocolates preserved in climate-controlled wooden boxes.
From this idyll, Glencore has for decades carefully guarded its privacy while building one of the greatest—and, some would say, quite notorious—natural-resources operations that the world has ever seen.
Its head-turning $170.5 billion in sales in 2015 is enough for Glencore to rank No. 14 on this year’s Global 500, far above household names such as AT&T, Chevron CVX 0.06% , and GE GE -2.01% . And the breadth of its reach is perhaps unsurpassed by any other company.
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