...Coal was branded according to the mine it was from. “They would sell it with all the marketing language in the world: it's real rocket fuel, put this into your boiler, blah-blah-blah.” But the all-important details, from calorific values to ash content, had to be hammered-out for each transaction, with financial penalties attached.
There were meanwhile no benchmarks or standardised prices to measure each contract against. “You could look up the oil price, or look up the electricity price, but there was no way that you could really find out what the coal price was, and the prices were radically different between the different contracts.”
Sean's brainwave was to standardise coal contracts, then create an online exchange for trading thermal coal. With two partners, he launched a website and began sending out faxes, to get buyers and sellers registered on their platform, GlobalCOAL.
“It was very difficult going,” Sean concedes. “This is the most hare-brained scheme that we've ever heard of,” one mining company complained. “Whatever rock you guys crawled out from, will you please go back and stay there? Negative feedback, negative feedback, negative feedback.”
He took the idea to the head of coal trading at Swiss commodities giant Glencore, Ivan Glasenberg, who is now Glencore's group CEO. “And being the visionary that he is, I think he could see some possibilities.”
Bit by bit, Gilbertson cajoled mining companies, coal buyers and an American buyout firm onto his platform, binding it together in true Gilbertson fashion with a supremely complex investor agreement. When live trading began in 2001, he had coaxed onboard everyone from Anglo American to Rio Tinto, pulling-off the first instantaneous online trade, between Enron and a European utility.
“It took a long time before we got there. The board meetings were really difficult and it took a long time for the liquidity to build.”
In putting together the platform, Gilbertson had come across “a young Chinese fella”, he
says with a thick South African accent, who was wizard at linking spreadsheets. Brokers could punch numbers into a spreadsheet in Singapore and they'd pop up in offices in London and New York. For the 1990s, it was radical stuff, and Gilbertson had his second brainwave, expanding from coal to all metals traded on the London Metal Exchange.
A legal loophole allowed LME traders to operate wherever they wanted, so Gilbertson built a new platform and took the idea to the LME's board, offering them an equity stake. Sean was 27 at the time. The LME told him to “go jump”, he says, jabbing the air with chopsticks. “They had no interest.” So he signed-up traders regardless, “and the volumes were ticking up,” but slowly, so Gilbertson dumped the business and returned his focus to coal.
Almost immediately, online metal trading volumes went through the roof and the business he had exited started throwing-off cash. “Just bad timing,” Sean says. “For a couple of years, I really was kicking myself.”
Still in his early 30s, Gilbertson had hit some milestones. GlobalCOAL had created the world's first coal price index, quoted every day in the Financial Times and used as a benchmark for large coal deals. Gilbertson had also forced the LME, which later ploughed cash into building its
own platform, towards online trading. “I have no doubt, we forced that industry to go into electronic trading.”
All his ideas hinged on one thing: liquidity. Pump enough people in one direction and you can create a market where there was none. And if you get there first, you can pull the strings. “It's a snowball effect. The moment something gains the right degree of momentum and there's enough liquidity, it goes bananas.”
In 2003, Sean's father Brian resigned from BHP Billiton, having nearly pulled-off an astonishing mega-merger with Rio Tinto. Brian was soon working with Viktor Vekselberg on aluminium in Russia, Sean resigned from GlobalCOAL and became “heavily focused on opportunities in the Russian market.”
Russian diamonds, discovered in the 1950s, were being sold into a monopoly led by South African diamond giant De Beers, but the EU had ordered a breakup of the happy arrangement, leaving the diamond market in flux.
“We thought we had this genius idea,” Sean says, finishing his small bowl of rice. Why not marry Russian diamonds and the Fabergé brand name under the slogan From Russia With Love, creating Fabergé Diamonds, an iconic new diamond house? “Great concept. Literally we're sitting there thinking this is a home run.”
“Long story short, we could not get the Russians to go for the idea.” A large US fund meanwhile pulled out of a $650m commitment to fund Pallinghurst, a private equity vehicle the Gilbertsons were putting together, which was left with Vekselberg as its largest investor.
Sean had a call from Vekselberg's lawyer: “Sean, I've got some not so good news for you.” Vekselberg wanted full ownership of Fabergé. “Not good,” Sean says, talking always with an undercurrent of irony. “But what choice did we have? The noose in the terms of the deal got worse and worse for us.”
They telephoned Hans Mende, a secretive German coal investor who lives in New York, and Mende bailed the Gilbertsons out of their predicament in Russia. “A real gent,” Sean says...