“I am afraid to take it off,” says Elman, a Briton, with a smile. “Sometimes, you’ve got to be lucky.”
Elman, 72, founded Noble Group in 1986 and today presides over a commodities powerhouse with annual revenue of $80.7 billion. That makes Noble as big as Archer Daniels Midland, the world’s No. 1 grain processor, and almost half the size of Glencore International, the biggest publicly traded commodities supplier, which has its headquarters in Baar, Switzerland.
Noble’s meteoric rise has been fueled by the decade-long commodities boom — a product of surging demand in emerging markets. Noble has roughly doubled in size every two years since 2001 by buying coal, soybeans and other commodities in countries such as Australia, Brazil and Indonesia and selling them to China, India and the Middle East.
“People in the trading business have a lot of respect for Richard Elman for what he has built,” says Vijay Iyengar, chairman of Agrocorp International and a commodities trader in Singapore who personally owns Noble shares. “They are aggressive. And they know what they are doing.”
Now, after amassing a fortune worth about $1.7 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, Elman faces some of the most daunting challenges in his long career. The torrid expansion in China and other developing nations has fizzled. After growing at an annual average of 10.4 percent from 2001 to 2011, China’s economy expanded 7.4 percent in the third quarter, the seventh straight quarterly deceleration.
On Nov. 9, 2011, Noble announced its first quarterly loss in 14 years, partly due to cotton trades that went wrong. The company’s stock plunged 27 percent the following day to on the Singapore Exchange. And Elman has had to cope with cooling markets at a time of management turmoil within Noble over choosing his successor.
The tycoon is now rushing into the world’s largest economy — the United States — which he considers a hot spot for commodities investors. He says America has cheap land, a sophisticated labor force and a good banking system.
“We deal with emerging markets, and we think that one of the fastest-emerging markets is the United States,” Elman says.
Since 2008, Noble has spent more than $781.2 million in the United States, investing in natural gas pipeline companies and storage facilities, according to Bloomberg data.
Elman, a stout man who likes to hike in the mountains in Switzerland, hasn’t lost his zeal for work: He sometimes doesn’t leave the office until 8 p.m. Elman has done everything at Noble, from emptying rubbish bins to signing deals in the deepest parts of Siberia.