The often adapted business mantra that you are only as good
as the people you surround yourself with might have been made
for industrial mineral trading companies.
Opaque, niche and often in private hands, the operations of
these businesses rely on experience and trust –
qualities for which corporate practices can only make up for a
fraction of that provided by simple human intuition.
German mineral trading and distribution group Cofermin is a
proponent of people. "We are a people business," says Tim
Geldmacher, partner of Cofermin Rohstoffe, the original
marketing and distribution component of the Cofermin Group. "In
our business, people come first, commodities second. Our people
make things happen, they are our most valuable resource that
allows us to be the service provider our suppliers and
customers need us to be."
Priding yourself on personnel means setting yourself a tough
recruitment task and staffing the business hasn’t
always been easy. From the beginning, the four founding
partners of Cofermin agreed that having the right team in place
with the ability to inspire confidence in customers would be
key to securing long-term business contacts. Therefore,
employee engagement and development play a large part in
"The key is to find the right people for the job –
experience is appreciated, but more importantly, the person
must fit the philosophy and culture of the company," Geldmacher
The owner-managed company was originally set up by former
employees of Frank & Schulte GmbH – Dr Pawel
Golak, Bernhard Krueger, Ralf Ossen and Tim Geldmacher. Frank +
Schulte, also known as F+S, was a division of logistics and
trading group Stinnes AG and a dominant force in raw materials
trading, processing and distribution in the 1990s.
Based in Essen in the Ruhr region of North-Rhine Westphalia,
Cofermin was formed 15 years ago with a staff of eight. Today,
Cofermin Group consists of five distinct companies –
Cofermin Rohstoffe, Cofermin Chemicals, EEG, M!nerals and
Cofermin Chrome, employing more than 40 permanent staff and
supported by a widespread network of agents and partners.
Founding fathers (from left to right):
Bernhard Krueger, Dr Pawel Golak, Tim Geldmacher and
Ralf Ossen set up Cofermin in the year 2000.
Like its founders, most of Cofermin’s staff
have had a long history in the international industrial
minerals business. As a result, the company has a large degree
of diversification in speciality minerals and chemical products
across several countries and industries, including
refractories, ceramics, steel and foundries.
Although it is based in Germany, Cofermin has a worldwide
customer base and generates over 60% of its turnover from
outside its home country.
In addition to its Essen headquarters, Cofermin Group works
through its own offices in Poland, Russia, Japan and China. In
other countries, including Spain, the UK, Italy, Turkey and
India, the group has long-term local partners that maintain
close contact with its customers.
According to Andreas Pabst, business development manager for
Cofermin Rohstoffe, "this is a very lean and effective way of
servicing the markets in the best interests of all parties
Many speciality minerals producers do not have the resources
to set up bases in every country where they have, or would like
to have, business. By marketing their products through
Cofermin, these producers can reach their final customers via a
model akin to a minerals supermarket – a supermarket
that can not only source products but also provide technical
advice and manage the supply chain.
"We assume a large number of functions, primarily marketing
and distribution, but also logistics, processing and packaging,
as well as strategic market development. In this sense we see
ourselves more as a service provider," Pabst told
"Our portfolio consists of dozens of different speciality
products from many different sources around the world. When our
people visit a client, every single producer that we represent
effectively participates in these visits. It’s
economies of scale in marketing and distribution terms."
In an industry where margins are permanently under threat
and buyers are always looking to minimise their raw material
costs, traders might seem like dispensable middle-men,
particularly as the growth of internet commerce has made it
easier for sellers to connect with potential customers at the
click of a button.
Room in the middle
But Cofermin believes that the role of the
trader-cum-service provider is crucial to the minerals
business, where end users need reliable, consistent supplies of
highly specific raw materials, for which there are few or no
"There was a trend not so long ago when producers and
customers tried to squeeze out the middle-men in an attempt to
cut costs," recalls Geldmacher. "But in 2008, when shortages
were realised in a number of markets, people soon recognised
how important our function is."
From a consumer’s point of view, one of the
many functions a marketing and distribution service provider
like Cofermin assumes is the management and maintenance of
inventory in a non-speculative manner. Another function is to
find alternative sources, if and when this becomes
At the other end of the supply chain, from a raw material
producer’s point of view, Cofermin promises
transparent, objective and up-to-date market intelligence,
which in turn means it has the ability to react quickly to
And these conditions have changed quite spectacularly in the
15 years Cofermin has been in business. From an insatiable
consumer of industrial minerals in the late 1990s and
throughout the 2000s, China has shifted into a position of
overcapacity and become a more significant exporter for raw
materials, changing the supply and pricing landscape for many
bulk and speciality mineral products. Developments elsewhere
have seen other producing regions wax and wane in importance,
but most have witnessed a drop off in demand to some extent,
owing to the "China factor".
Geldmacher says that Cofermin has weathered these changes.
"Business has been satisfactory for us over the years, we have
no reason for complaining." He puts this success down to three
"secrets" of Cofermin’s approach.
"Number one is having good people. The second is having a
diversified portfolio, a broad range of products so that you
are not only in refractories or foundries but also in ceramics,
glass, fertilisers and other areas."
Andreas Pabst, Cofermin
Rohstoffe’s business development
manager, previously worked for Andalusite
Resources in South Africa.
And the third secret of avoiding dents in demand, Geldmacher
says, is geographical reach. "Even though we are a small
company, we are very international. If the steel industry in
Germany is taking a dip, this is of course not good, but
somewhere else in the world, it will likely be growing, so you
need to make sure you have access to other markets and
At the end of last year, Cofermin added the two newest
branches to its family tree – M!nerals and Cofermin
Chrome – both of which began trading on 1 January
The additions mark the company’s shift towards
bulk trading minerals, which Cofermin describes as the
"classical Chinese raw materials business". M!nerals
specialises in the sourcing and distribution of bauxite,
magnesite, fused alumina, graphite and chamotte, collectively
referred to as "refractory minerals" and produced mainly in
China, for European customers.
Cofermin Chrome, meanwhile, has taken over and is set to
expand all Cofermin Rohstoffe’s chrome activities,
offering chrome ore and chromite sand to a range of industries,
including foundries, refractories and glass, from a variety of
While chrome markets are old hat to Cofermin, its M!nerals
venture is a more decisive departure from the
company’s traditional focus. "In the past we had
deliberately stayed away from minerals like bauxite and
magnesite and concentrated more on speciality and niche
products, but the new setup fits very well with our existing
businesses," Geldmacher told IM.
Despite the addition of new and potentially less certain
areas of mineral trading to its business model, Cofermin Group
describes itself as essentially "conservative" in its approach
– taking only well measured risks where the odds are
This goes back to Geldmacher’s insistence that
it conducts maintenance of inventory responsibly and
He cites the example of the zircon industry, where in
2010-2011, prices shot up from $800/tonne to around
$1,800/tonne on perceived shortages and aggressive marketing by
Australian producers, causing many suppliers to stock up on
material to sell on at an inflated profit.
"We never did that. And while it means we might not get an
extraordinary advantage when the prices are up, we also
don’t fall as deep when the market comes down
again," Geldmacher explains.
Aside from changes in China, since entering the speciality
minerals trading business 15 years ago, Cofermin Group has
witnessed some other visible alterations in the raw materials
distribution landscape. One such change has been a shift in
approach towards more modern thinking.
"We were certainly part of this change. It is partly a
generational thing – we have a relatively youthful
workforce, and whilst our oldest colleague is 80, we reach
forward across five generations," says Geldmacher.
A hallmark of this new-generation thinking is a leaning
towards transparency – a relative term in niche
minerals trading – which Cofermin believes is central
to the trust component of its business code.
The main reason Cofermin can make this work in what remains
a largely opaque industry is that it does not act as a
traditional trader in the majority of cases, but rather as a
service provider and agent for its principals.
"Cofermin is the extended arm of the supplier," says Pabst,
"and as such, operates along the lines of building lasting
relationships between suppliers and customers, rather than
making short-term gains from individual trades and
A concern that Cofermin has started to address seriously in
recent years is where the next generation of company executives
will come from. It is a problem being faced across the
industrial minerals industry, as fewer people train in relevant
disciplines and those that do are tempted away from industrial
minerals into lucrative jobs in financial services and other
Cofermin has faced accusations of "poaching" staff,
following a handful of high profile moves from other businesses
to positions within the Cofermin Group. Cofermin, however,
argues that it has simply "taken steps to actively identify,
engage, hire and empower the people it needs to ensure the
company is in safe hands in the future".
On a plate: Cofermin sources and
speciality mineral products such as
bauxite to customers all over the world,
its main trading route for refractory minerals
between China and Europe.
"We saw an opportunity to get some really good people and
use them to head up new parts of our business," says
Secondary raw materials
Aside from its two new businesses, Cofermin’s
focus for the next few years is secondary raw materials
– recycled or reclaimed materials from spent
mineral-based products that can be fed back into the industrial
Corhart ZAC, for example, a refractory material used in
glass tanks, is now an accepted recycling raw material for use
in the refractories industry, particularly in monolithics, to
increase abrasion and alkali resistance. "We think this can be
true for other recycled materials," Geldmacher explains.
Cofermin believes that the key to unlocking this market is
original thinking and a proactive approach to opening up new
market opportunities – a nettle which Cofermin intends
to grasp by co-designing recycled products in collaboration
with partners and potential end user customers.
Cofermin Group "considers this to be the necessary modern
approach – to act the role as the extended arm of the
supplier/producer," says Geldmacher.