INTERVIEW: ‘I wake up every day to keep our company competitive’ - Vareha-Walsh

Published: Tuesday, 12 October 2021

As the director of sales, global supply chain and trade compliance at Indium Corp as well as chair of the Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA), Donna Vareha-Walsh has a global view of markets for minor metals. She outlined big plans for the MMTA and described her path to success with Cristina Belda.

Donna Vareha-Walsh  

Knowing when to take a risk can be key to making progress in life. Vareha-Walsh, from the US steel town of Pittsburgh, knows that well.

She found her passion for the metals industry almost by chance when working as a business consultant in 2001 with Jefferson Wells International, shortly after spending nearly three years as an international tax consultant for Ernst & Young.

"Back then, I was working with clients that were dealing with international businesses, helping them understand and reduce their overall total landed costs and supply chain, and I worked with one particular customer that was dealing with challenges created by the '’ crash and the move of manufacturing to Asia,’’ she said. "They had global operations and we needed to develop a strategy for them, given the challenges that low-cost Asian plants and raw materials presented."

The customer for that project was Kennametal – the company she would start working for in September 2001. "This is how I joined the metals industry; I started as a business unit controller and stepped out of finance and entered into the other side – the sales and operations side of it – after three years with the company," she said.

"That was the biggest decision of my life." She hesitated at first because she was already good and confident in her finance skills and the other side was uncertain, but any fears she might have held about making the move did not change her choice. "I believe everything that happens will lead you to another road or provide you with experiences that make you successful later."

Little did she know when her journey began in handling those business challenges that 20 years later she would find herself overcoming perhaps the biggest challenge of all – handling the material supply chain issues of a key, high-technology industry when the world had stopped during a global pandemic.

Now as the director of sales, global supply chain and trade compliance at Indium Corp, a US-based company that provides advanced electronics assembly materials and trades high-purity metals as well as compound products made from the minor metals indium, gallium and germanium, Vareha-Walsh has responsibility for the company’s supply chain, international trade and logistics, while also leading global sales for the metals, the metal compounds and the recycling business unit.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, she had to adapt to new, unknown and unprecedented circumstances in real time. "To keep manufacturing going during Covid was a challenge," she said. "We did [and continue to do] everything we can to make sure we keep the company’s production running and its people safe," she said.

And production did not stop. "During the whole pandemic, our company has done extremely well with the supply chain, making sure that we had minimal to no supply-chain disruptions, with a 90-day supply of material," she said.

Indium Corp and a number of New York State manufacturers created, and committed to, a pledge to enhance manufacturing workplace safety while ensuring production was uninterrupted.

"People in the production line were great. They ran the production floor while having to deal with all the uncertainty. We all made sure we understood who were the critical suppliers. We have plants all around the world, and we were reviewing them," she said.

Vareha-Walsh highlighted the importance of ensuring good communication with your teams. "You need to dive deep to make sure you understand critical suppliers in the process – good information gives you confidence and reduces the uncertainty," she said.

Keeping calm in crises
Vareha-Walsh has dealt with other global crises during her career; two critical events that shaped world history came to her mind: the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York and the subprime mortgage financial crisis in 2008.

"After September 11, 2001, the market changed dramatically," she said.

She had just started working for Kennametal then, and her main concern was the risk of ending up with unfulfilled contracts. She recalled that the volume of business basically just collapsed, making contracts challenging to manage and their pricing very difficult because metal prices plummeted too, particularly for cobalt.

"In 2008, it was kind of the same thing. We were questioning if the business was going to recover – you did not know where the bottom was," she said.

Business has held up better during the current global crisis of the pandemic. "This time, Indium Corp products were in high demand. We are doing a great deal in the electronics industry and, if anything, we had more material we needed to get rather than material we needed to figure out what to do with," she said.

Demand for consumer electronics, including monitors, smart TVs, smartphones or wearables never stopped and, in many segments, have benefited from the acceleration of remote working, leading to even more sales.

Vareha-Walsh said that Indium Corp has seen a lot more business growth during the pandemic: "You see an increase in televisions, because you couldn’t go anywhere. You have an increase in the gaming industry, in smartphones...," she said.

The booming demand for consumer electronics has had far-reaching effects, resulting, for example, in a global semiconductors shortage that has held up production at automakers.

Dealing with ups and downs
Given her experience of major market disruptions, what tips does Vareha-Walsh have for responding to them?

"I think from a supply-chain perspective on managing metals, the one thing that you always want to do is position yourself so that you don’t have 100% where you believe your forecast and demand is, but you make decisions based on a variety of factors... Each metal is different, but you really need to assess each one and determine what supply chain strategy you should have. You need to ask yourself a series of questions: How much should we have on a long-term contract? Where does the material come from? How does the supply-chain situation look going forward? Are we accessing all the different elements that could trigger either the lack of material or a significant increase, or vice versa?" she said.

"Decide on a sourcing strategy which could be 75% on commitment to 25% on the spot market, or some version of that," she said, explaining that different percentages depend on how you use or sell or the customer pricing strategies.

Vareha-Walsh has learned how to set such ratios over the years. She has extensive experience in cross-commodities markets, including ammonium paratungstate, tantalum and cobalt during a decade with Kennametal, followed by three years with nickel, chrome, molybdenum, niobium, etc, with specialty alloys producer Carpenter Technology Corp - as its director of global procurement. Since joining Indium Corp in 2015, she has focused on tin, silver and gold, and the minor metals indium, gallium and germanium. She has held different positions in the company and still sees great opportunities for the business to grow further.

"I wake up every day to keep our company competitive," she said.

Her background in international tax and finance has been a big asset in working in the metals industry, as have her studies in accounting, finance and business. She holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Duquesne University, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and was also a certified public accountant.

She relishes the variety of responsibilities that her career in metals has provided. "The biggest highlights of my career are having had the opportunity to work in various functional capacities… being able to work in finance, in sales and operations," she said.

MMTA Chair
Alongside her demanding role with Indium Corp, in 2020, Vareha-Walsh was elected chair of the MMTA, a not-for-profit organization that comprises companies actively involved in all aspects of the international minor metals sector.

Founded in 1968, the association’s members are involved in 49 metals that are generally not traded on exchanges. Vareha-Walsh will serve as chair of the MMTA for the next three years, having succeeded the previous chair and on-going committee member Simon Boon, vice president of Sovereign International Metals & Alloys Inc.

Vareha-Walsh is the first female and first American chair of the MMTA, but when that was mentioned in discussion she stressed instead the importance of hard work to make career progress rather than focusing on her gender.

"Yes, I am the first woman in this position, but I am not sure why there have not been others. Throughout my career, I have never felt that being a woman has put me at a disadvantage," she said. "I think that anyone that works hard and makes sure that they understand their job can excel at it. If you work hard, the opportunities will follow," she said.

She has big plans for the MMTA. "We want to make sure that we keep and grow the spirit of the MMTA," she said. Bringing more industrial players into the association and increasing the membership is one of her priorities. "I think that we have a lot of opportunity to further penetrate the overall minor metal industry from mine to consume... For example, Intel Corp just joined the association this year. That’s a big company that is doing a lot of electronics, and the electronic industry uses a lot of minor metals."

Equally important for the MMTA is to increase business networks and access to policy making, giving guidance on the implications of duties or tariffs and any practical information that is important to anyone buying or selling minor metals, from warehousing to transport or trade regulations.

The year 2020 was not an easy one for the MMTA, as some of its members were dramatically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. "Our events are our major revenue driver; the pandemic limited our ability to hold one for 18 months and, given the global Covid restrictions, the event would be limited to US participants," Vareha-Walsh said.

The MMTA’s main annual event had to be canceled twice due to travel restrictions, but the good news is that it finally took place in mid-September in Charleston, South Carolina. "It was well-attended by North American members," Vareha-Walsh said.

"It was good from the standpoint that we got to see a lot of folks that we haven’t seen and focus on best practices on how companies have managed thus far," she said, adding that most of the conversations at the event, unsurprisingly, revolved around current logistical challenges and the global shortage of shipping containers, contributing to the skyrocketing shipping costs.

MMTA conferences, seminars and, of course, other major events like LME Week with the associated multiple meetings of metal traders in London during normal times play a key role in the minor metals industry, which is a relatively small and friendly market, in which many market participants, even those who are competitors in business, are quite familiar with each other. Among them, Vareha-Walsh, an enthusiastic presenter, is a well-known face to be found at many conferences or business meetings.

"I was in Asia, either China, Japan or Korea, typically every two to three months, either for a conference or [to see] a customer, a supplier, or one of my team members," she said.

When asked if the lack of face-to-face meetings impacted business, Vareha-Walsh responded, "It is not the same; it is a little bit different. With some suppliers [the situation] has not changed, but each country is different. In Asia, that [meeting-in-person] piece of the business has been lost. In the US, we don’t meet for a coffee or a drink as often."

The fewer opportunities for direct human interaction are missed by the minor metals trade, Vareha-Walsh noted, since the normal ability to have a cup of coffee or a drink with someone and to exchange information is not the same as exchanging emails with them. "I am anxious to see and meet our member base as well as some of my customers and some of their customers and suppliers. I’m anxious to see them because I haven’t seen them in so long," she said.

Minor metals potential
The MMTA’s recent conference also addressed the way that new applications for minor metals are driving changes in their markets. In particular, Vareha-Walsh sees potential from the Internet of Things, 5G and, especially in the US, automation. In these areas, germanium, used in infrared lenses, and gallium, a key component for the development of 5G networks through gallium arsenide and gallium nitride semiconductors, have great prospects in the years ahead, she said.

Other factors, such as recycling, are important too, as the circular economy has created a shift in the use of metals from a production-to-disposal mentality toward reuse and recycling. Many minor metals are well suited to this shift in economic model because they have recycling loops of high economic value. "There’s a lot of focus going forward on the end-of-life of electronics that are absorbing all these metals and then bringing them back into the supply chain through recycling," Vareha-Walsh said.

For example, indium metal recovery from indium tin oxide (and sputtering production waste has a high recovery rate. The recycling aspect, in her view, will also prevent any shortage of the silvery-white metal, which was seen in 2011 when demand for liquid crystal displays, one of its main applications, surged.


Indium has multiple applications in growing markets

China’s influence
Many minor metal markets rely on China as a source of supply and demand, but history shows that the physical fundamentals affecting their balance are not always the only factor at play. Memories of the fall of the Fanya Metal Exchange in 2015, for example, still overshadow some minor metals markets to this day.

The Chinese exchange, launched in 2011, provided an additional outlet for producers to sell their material and gave a group of investors an opportunity to step into what had previously been considered a specialist market. But problems began to show at the end of 2014 when some investors became wary as metal stocks piled up due to new production coming on stream to feed surging demand for the exchange’s products. With sentiment souring, the exchange found itself exposed to continually falling prices for metals, while also being accused of failing to pay suppliers. The bourse was shut down in 2015 following investors’ protests.

The stockpile of about 3,629 tonnes of indium, which is equivalent to about six years’ worth of global consumption, as well as significant quantities of 13 other minor metals, overhung the markets and prices fell to multi-year lows until Vital Materials purchased the stocks in January 2020.

In July 2021, the market situation changed and China’s spot indium price increased by 45%, reaching its highest point in two and a half years. This big rise was driven, in large part, by trading on the Wuxi Stainless Steel Exchange, which is one of the largest marketplaces for steel traders and distributors in China. European prices climbed too.

"There is no fundamental change in the indium market creating an increase so dramatic. There is no big change in demand – it is not like a new technology came in," Vareha-Walsh said.

This situation has created a concern shared across the minor metals trade, she added. Within the minor metals industry, there is a general consensus that most minor metals, with the exception of cobalt, do not have enough liquidity and the hedging tools needed to be traded on an exchange.

Vareha-Walsh sees similarities now with the trading that was seen on the Fanya Metal Exchange: "We are seeing the same behavior – interested parties are trying to get higher prices today to sell in a future exchange," she said.

Leading a team
Sharing her knowledge about the intricacies of the markets with her team so that they can apply it in their own way is one of Vareha-Walsh’s biggest passions. During discussion with Metal Market Magazine, she was in Turin, Italy, doing sales training. "I really like developing people from all over the world... They bring a lot," she said.

"I have a super team; very dedicated professionals that work hard. It is my team that allows me to be successful." The team she leads is global, with its members based in China, South Korea, Malaysia, Europe and the US.

"I’m used to working as a global team – 7am meetings work well to have everyone on board," she said. Her day starts with Asia, then Europe and North America, to focus on Asia again after 7pm. She is always "on call" if anything urgent needs to be addressed, she said, but she also knows how to delegate as a matter of trust and as a form of empowerment.

"I like to make sure that my teams are empowered; I provide the strategy direction and objectives, and they decide the course,’’ she said. She and the team pursue every avenue in which they see an opportunity. While she works for a big company, its culture is entrepreneurial.

For her, the role of a mentor in every stage of career development has been greatly valued. Her mentor at the global tungsten company she worked for, Gary Weissman, supported her to achieve many of her goals and take the leap out of finance into sales and operations.

"It is important that a mentor is judgement free; that you can ask questions about any topics you are trying to deal with; and that they’re someone that you can talk to openly and freely," she said.

She wants to do the same for her colleagues. "Even as a sales director, I can share with them experiences from procurement that can be useful when they’re coming to sell a product." Her advice to people new in the industry is to learn as much as they can, to understand how the pricing is set, and understand the players in the markets and the import/export environment. "Looking for opportunities, looking on how to make your company competitive. Never stop learning," she said.

The rewards of less travel
While Vareha-Walsh does miss the business advantages of travelling, one of the personal upsides generated by internatonal travel restrictions is that she has been able to look after herself more by eating healthier and having more time for exercise – as well as using additional time spent at home to get to know her husband again, she said.

"During Covid, I took advantage of the opportunity to get healthier, to make my own food, work out longer and be more consistent in my workouts," she said. "I was able to lose weight that I gained during the last 20 years of traveling and being at work, and not always being available to make my own healthy food or exercise."

She went biking and skiing more: "They are both great outdoor activities."

Although traveling less for work, she and her husband still managed to do plenty of skiing. "Working from home also gave my husband, who runs his own business not related to the industry, a better feel for the challenges of my job, how global it is and how, at times, it can cause for some sleepness nights. I think he’s getting a better appreciation of my professional life," she said.