Inka Guixà: ‘The family is at the service of the company and not the other way around’

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Published: Thursday, 11 March 2021

In her early career, La Farga CEO Inka Guixà had not considered working for the business founded by her father and grandfather, but in her late-20s she accepted an invitation to join the company and assist in its expansion. She recounts her route to the top of the business and discusses the outlook for copper with Andrea Hotter.

If Inka Guixà had taken her teacher’s advice not to go into higher education, it may well have altered the course of her entire career. Instead, she pursued several degrees and set herself on a path to eventually become the chief executive officer of La Farga by the time she was in her mid-30s. 

Barcelona, Spain-born Guixà was the second of five children – three girls and two boys. Her father Oriol, an engineer, had been working at La Farga since just after her birth, and he was one of the founders of the recycled copper continuous casting company, based on a business with a very long heritage. But a career at the same company for Guixà was not on the cards, she recalled. 

"We didn’t live our childhoods as if we were going to work at La Farga. For me, La Farga was the job of my father – I wasn’t planning to enter the copper industry," she told Metal Market Magazine. 

At school, Guixà had preferred science to the humanities, but she had no interest in engineering. "Maybe if I started again and know what I know now, engineering could have been something I would have tried. But I wanted to do something that allowed me to explore a variety of sectors," she said. "When I was young and had a lot of homework, I’d complain and say I didn’t know how I was going to do it. My father would say, 'Inka, the day has 24 hours. Organize yourself!’" she added. 

After being told by a teacher that she would not succeed at university so not to bother applying, Guixà’s parents reassured her that she could accomplish anything she wanted. "I don’t think it fully sunk in what the teacher was saying until I was older. Now I think, what a thing to tell a child!" she said. 

In fact Guixà is a graduate in Business Administration and Management from Esade in Barcelona and she has a Master’s degree in Business Administration (BA & MBA). She also participated in an exchange program in Vancouver, Canada, at the University of British Columbia.

"Then I thought, 'What do I want to do next?’ I liked the feel of trade marketing, so I joined brewery company Damm Group, and was there for around two years. But at a certain point I thought I needed more. The opportunities the company were able to give me were not coming at the speed I wanted," she said. "I tried to look for something else, and really was interested in the consulting business."

She applied to one of the 'big four’ consulting firms, and was involved in the application process when she decided to join a smaller strategic consultancy, Antares Consulting, in order to experience the whole spectrum of its business. "I went from junior consultant to project manager in less than two years, and really enjoyed it, but I have to admit at the end there was something that I hadn’t expected: I was on the path towards being a little bit burnt out," she added. 

Eventually, one of her former senior managers took a role in the pharma industry and called her about a position he had, encouraging her to work with him. She consequently joined Novartis Farmacéutica in a department that focused on internal consulting. "Its objective was to analyze the sales department and determine the best strategy to manage the sales force in order to achieve a better result. I really enjoyed the role," Guixà said.

A day of change

Everything changed one day when, age 28, she and her boyfriend were invited to dinner with her parents. "They said, 'Inka, we’re looking for someone in La Farga to expand the business and we think it might be the right moment for you to join.’ It was quite shocking and really unexpected. I’d gotten involved with the board around 18 months previously, but I saw it as normal because we were a family business and had responsibility as shareholders, but nothing else," she said. 

Her family had never mentioned the possibility of her joining the company full-time; none of her siblings were involved with the business either. "If you had asked me half an hour before that dinner what I was going to do for the next ten years, I would never have said I would work for La Farga. It was not my mindset!" she laughed.

But close to her family and proud of its achievements, she asked her parents and her boyfriend, now her husband, to discuss the proposal. One of her main concerns was the potential pressure to ultimately succeed her father. "I didn’t think it was good for me or anybody," she said. "I thought it more important to follow a path and if at the end it was determined I was the right person, then I would go for it, but if not, nothing should happen. It was really important."

Having seen first-hand the sacrifices her parents had made to balance their family lives with the business, Guixà’s other concern was ensuring she did not have to give up being a parent in the future. 

"I understood that society was not the same as when my father started at La Farga, but I wanted to make sure that I would be able to be a mum. It didn’t mean I wanted to be at home every day, but I wanted to have an active role in my future children’s lives and education," she recalled. "So, I said that if my parents thought what they were proposing wasn’t feasible with that goal, then it wouldn’t work," she said. 

Guixà had a similar conversation with her grandfather, La Farga’s other co-founder who, it transpired, had been the one to suggest she join the company in the first place. She made the decision in partnership with her boyfriend; Guixà understood that as a couple, professional and personal success required a balanced, joint approach. "We knew it was something I couldn’t decide by myself; it was a family project. So, we decided together," she added. 

Accepting the role was, Guixà acknowledged, an honor but also a huge responsibility. "My brothers and sisters were quite surprised at the start, saying, 'ok, what?!’ because none of us had thought about La Farga as a place we would work. But I have always had the support of my siblings," she added. 

Career in copper

Guixà joined La Farga in 2009, when it already had a heritage over two centuries old and had a long history in copper. Aside from a three-year period during the Spanish Civil War starting in 1936, when it was nationalized for military purposes, the company has always been family-owned. 

It was originally founded in 1808 by Francesc Lacambra Pont as a small foundry in the La Barceloneta port district of Barcelona, Spain. The foundry – the genesis of LaFarga – produced nails, pots, bells, and other products from copper and bronze for the Catalan naval fleet.

By the 1840s, the business was one of the main suppliers of copper to the Barcelona Royal Mint, diversifying further in the coming years to supply copper sheeting to line the hulls of wooden ships bound for the United States. Just prior to the First World War, the company started producing wire rod for electric cables used in the railway and electrical industries. 

But a lack of investment left the company on the verge of bankruptcy by the start of the 1980s. Fate intervened: the paperwork to close the business came across the law firm desk of Guixà’s maternal grandfather. 

"He was very passionate about the history of Lacambra, saying, 'I have seen this company all my life – I cannot close it, but I have no idea about industry or copper, so what do I do?’" Guixà said. "He called his son-in-law, my father, and said, 'You’re an engineer, please come and analyze the business.’ Between them, they came up with the idea of a recycled copper continuous casting company," she added. 

In 1981, LaFarga Lacambra S.A. was created; in 2003 it became the LaFarga Group.

During that period, La Farga started up its first continuous casting line from recycled material, then diversified from rod and wires to also include tubes, welding wires and railways markets. In 2008, the company invested in its second wire rod plant to increase capacity and diversify its end-markets further to include automation and magnet wire. 

When Guixà joined, she began her role at La Farga as the expansion manager in its newly formed international business, which was focused on growth outside Spain plus the sale of the company’s recycling technology abroad. After a series of negotiations, investment overseas quickly followed in the form of a railway products joint venture in China.

Guixà’s team simultaneously started looking for a business in the United States, laying the groundwork for the eventual creation of SDI La Farga, its joint venture with Steel Dynamics, which produces recycled copper wire and rod. 

According to Guixà, working outside the company’s core Spanish business gave her an alternative perspective of La Farga and was an important lesson in the art of deal making across different cultures and professional environments. "Managing the sale of technology at that time allowed me to understand the position La Farga had in the copper recycling business as well as redefine our approach to the sale of that technology," she recalled.  "I worked very closely with my father and our great relationship really helped a lot. I had the opportunity to see different kinds of approaches to negotiations, which was really beneficial for me professionally."

Her next step was to move into a role that would provide a more strategic overview of La Farga; in 2013, Guixà became general director of planning and strategic management. "From that position I had the chance to deal with the different areas within the organization, identify the strengths and weaknesses, implement new procedures as well as define the mission of the company for the following years. It was quite a run," she noted. 

Although La Farga is a family-owned business, Guixà said company interests are placed ahead of family. "We understand that between family and business, what we need to protect is always the business and not the family," she said. "The family is at the service of the company and not the other way around," she told Metal Market Magazine. 

According to Guixà, the company uses strict protocols to ensure it is protected from the family. These include limiting the number of family members working at La Farga to enable career progression and encouraging different viewpoints from other executives. 

When family members do join La Farga, it is through invitation, not request, and only if they have proven experience elsewhere plus pass the evaluation of three external independent consultants. At the same time, an executive must be 35 to be the CEO, and that role must be separate to the company president.

Becoming CEO

At a certain point, it was clear that Guixà could succeed her father and the executive team began to lay the ground for the transition. In 2017, he became company president and she became CEO. "In a family business everyone talks about the importance of succession, but the clue is you need to have somebody able to say, 'Okay, my turn is over, I need to step aside and let someone else have a go,’ despite still having the passion, ability, energy to do the job themself. My father has done an amazing job of understanding the point at which he should do this – I take my hat off to him," she acknowledged. 

"The transition is finished, without any issues. I still talk to him all the time about the business. I am very different – he is 100% an engineer, and I am not, but in that sense, we complement each other perfectly," she said. 

Guixà describes her approach to business as market-oriented, analytical and with a sustainable growth view, and her leadership style as being based on cross-collaboration, empowering people, and project management. In her new role, she set about adapting La Farga to 21st century challenges such as digitalization, globalization and sustainability.

"Preparing for succession meant not only preparing myself; it also meant preparing the organization for what succession meant. That meant determining what La Farga would look like in the future and what challenges it would face as a company," she added. 

One of those challenges was moving the company from a personalized, family structure with independent directors and 100% of its shareholders on the board, to a structure with less shareholders in the boardroom. The key, Guixà said, was to retain the agility of decision-making that existed in the family-run business. 

According to Guixà, making this change was much more complicated than moving from one generation to another; it required adapting to operating with new ways of thinking. "La Farga has been changing as we move along that path, and it has been really powerful and exciting," she said. "We knew what we wanted La Farga to be in the future, and we had the fundamentals to achieve it; the challenge was how to make it sustainable in the long run while keeping the values that define us and make La Farga unique," she added. 

The company’s sales in 2019 were 208,600 tonnes, of which roughly half are export direct sales. La Farga is present worldwide in the railways sector while its presence in other end-markets is focused on central and southern Europe plus North Africa.

Despite its growth, Guixà said La Farga tries to maintain the philosophy of being a family, including giving its staff room to develop – herself being a case in point. "Normally companies give what I call 'small suits’ when they promote someone – they make sure the person will succeed and the amount of risk they take is very little. The suit already fits," she told Metal Market Magazine. "Our way of seeing it is that to promote people and help them grow as professionals, we need to give challenges and provide 'bigger suits’ that don’t fit perfectly the first time they’re worn. The challenge is to eventually fit the suit."

Another priority is health and safety, as well as communities, she said. "We’re not based in a big city but near a small village 80 km from Barcelona, and we know that we have an impact on this region. We need to take this into account and work with our suppliers, the communities as a whole," Guixà added. 

La Farga’s agility as a family business has also allowed it to drive innovation, something Guixà said is in the company’s DNA and requires taking risks.

Citing an example when the company had to decide the fate of a plant, Guixà said the standard choice would be between closing it and investing the money elsewhere, or taking a chance and trying to develop a new technology that could help it succeed. A typical board, she noted, would opt for the safe bet. "In our case, if you present something innovative and can explain why you’d succeed and what its benefits are, we go for it. Taking those kinds of risks allows you to identify new opportunities and sometimes new technologies, ideas, and developments. This is something in our case that defines us," she added. 

Sustainability

Understanding the role of sustainability through the copper supply chain some 40 years ago when Guixà’s family founded the group was relatively rare. Nowadays, the inclusion of sustainability criteria in sourcing decisions is far more common, although Guixà said while society recognizes the need to focus on climate change and its impacts, industry often has a different view. 

"The copper business can play a huge role in sustainability, but still the industry is not fully prepared. The reality is our clients are still not placing sustainability at the heart of decisions to purchase copper," she said. 

The whole copper value chain understands it needs to try to do its part in the decarbonization process, Guixà noted. "This means ensuring the whole product it is selling, the process used to make it, the raw materials consumed to produce it, and the second life it is given after it being used in the market, are sustainable. Making the production process more sustainable is a good first step, but we need to make the actual product fully sustainable, and that will be the real challenge," she added. 

This will require governments to step up and mandate the increased use of secondary copper where possible, and promote the circular economy and urban mining, in which raw materials are reclaimed from spent products, buildings and waste. "The mining industry certainly has a role, but the circular economy is very important – we need to find the balance. There is a vast amount of secondary copper in the market that isn’t being reused," Guixà said. 

"The obligation we have as an industry is to give life to that copper; it cannot be lost. We really need to promote this. But promoting this requires regulations, and that we put our energy into understanding and developing technology in order to be able to recirculate as much as possible," she added. 

Just 8.9 million tonnes of the nearly 30 million tonnes of copper consumed annually come from recycling, she noted, with the remainder coming from the mine. Those recycled tonnes account for about two-thirds of the 14 million tonnes of copper that are no longer useful each year, Guixà added, and there are over five million tonnes of copper annually that are lost and not receiving a second life. 

La Farga – which launched an environmental product declaration, the first of its kind in the copper wire rod sector – currently uses 42% recycled copper in its production process and is working to increase this percentage. 

The concept of reusing materials applies not just to copper but across industries, Guixà said, noting that the conversation is being facilitated as governments look to rebuild after the Covid-19 pandemic. The European Green Deal and the Build Back Better strategy in the United States are pushing the use of materials like copper in infrastructure, transportation, renewables, storage and distribution, she noted.  

"Global trends of industrialization, decarbonization and electrification are supportive of a vision of long-term copper demand," Guixà said. 

It is something the company promotes at its copper museum, opened in 2008 to celebrate La Farga’s bicentenary. "At our museum, we say copper had a role in the past, has a role in the present and for sure has a role in the future given the trends that are taking place and the properties it has. We need to see how regulations evolve, but if we’re able to implement the right policies, there’s a bright future for copper," Guixà added. 

Covid-19 has also emphasized the role of copper in providing economic stability through employment, she said, plus highlighted habits that are not efficient or sustainable, including flying on business trips when in reality a video call is equally viable. "It doesn’t mean trips won’t ever happen again, but we certainly need to find an equilibrium. The fact the pandemic has lasted this long means many changes will prevail because we’ve gotten used to them," Guixà said. 

It has provided a huge opportunity as a company, as an industry, and as a society, she noted. "It has allowed us to think about what we were doing before, what we want to keep doing and what we don’t. It’s something as a company that is very powerful, because you can adapt a lot of things. It’s also happened with our relations with clients and suppliers – you rethink what can be improved and changed," she added. 

Another consequence of the pandemic has been the acceleration of digitalization, which began some years ago but has been critically important to the operation of business, Guixà said. 

"The pandemic’s longevity will change our consumption patterns as well, and this implies applications will change. What is really interesting is what role copper will play. I am completely sure that due to the characteristics it has, demand for copper won’t decline, but we need to see in which sectors it will be more or less powerful," she told Metal Market Magazine. 

"The pandemic’s resolution requires a strategic global overview and the more global we are able as a society to treat it, the quicker we will get out of it. It’s really putting a spotlight on geopolitics – how governments deal with it, collaboratively or individually."

Women in commodities

When Guixà started at La Farga, she was immediately struck – and surprised – that the metals industry  was such a heavily male-dominated sector; "Nothing like I’d seen at university or in other professions I’d worked in," she said. 

"The balance was really not there. From what I’ve heard, before I came into the market it was even worse. The positive news is that I’ve only been in the industry since 2009 but I’m seeing a slow change. It’s still a male sector but we need to keep continuing to push," she added. 

The push needs to be in a lot of directions, Guixà acknowledged, "but this doesn’t mean it can’t change. A better balance brings opportunities, not just for women, but for everybody."

There are, she noted, many aspects impacting women in the workplace that need to alter globally, and not just in copper. "A man is rarely asked about his family, for example, yet we always ask a woman how she manages the work-family balance. It’s something that needs to change, starting with education at school. We should be recognizing that succeeding professionally doesn’t mean a woman can’t have a family," she added. 

Guixà recalls the time a new visitor to La Farga mistook her for a personal assistant because she had opened the reception door and offered to make her guest a coffee. "He closed the door in my face after I showed him to the meeting room. I opened it, and said 'No, I’m Inka, the expansion manager, and you’re meeting with me,’" she recalled. 

Another time, during a telephone call when she stuck to her guns concerning a difficult issue, Guixà was called a 'happy girl’ who ignorantly thought the world was a blissful place.

"My father says that he hadn’t realized how male the sector was until I joined La Farga. Now he has seen what happens to me and he realizes," she said. "But at the end of the day, if someone has a problem with my being a woman, it’s their problem, not mine. We have a path to create, the issue is on the table, and I like to think positively. We need to continue constructively and see that previously the industry was all dark-suited men; now there is colour, and in the future there will be more colour," she added. 

Now married to her boyfriend who was part of her discussions with her parents about joining La Farga, Guixà said the pair have a very supportive partnership. Her husband works in a family bakery business, having moved from a role at a multinational previously. "We were clear from the start that neither of us should be required to give up his or her dreams. We both wanted to succeed professionally, but we also wanted to have a family – so we needed to find an equilibrium," she added. 

The couple have two daughters, age ten and five, and an eight-year-old son. 

Hobbies have taken a backseat since having a family: "Making the balance work means that I understood if I wanted to succeed professionally and balance having three children, I would have no spare time," Guixà said.

"What we have done is to try to make their hobbies, our hobbies. My son plays hockey, the eldest daughter swims, the youngest likes dancing. We have a lot of hours of work and the rest is the five of us together," she said. "I love traveling, so – before the pandemic – we would travel together. My family is my hobby."

Guixà, who is fluent in English, is also learning to speak French and has worked hard to make sure her children understand why and what she does professionally. It’s a process that has been helped by homeschooling during periods of lockdown. 

"Covid-19 means they’ve seen me work at home, and they hear and sense how things are going. They understand what clients and suppliers are," she said. "We don’t put pressure on them to join the business; we always say they need to work in whatever career they want. They know they can decide."

Her advice to new starters in copper? The industry is "very captive; it really engages you and has a lot of passion in it. I would advise anyone joining it to be themself – it’s the only way," she said. "Think about what your objective is, what you really want, and go for it. Whether you succeed or not, at least you will be you."

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