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Profile One: a Beijing steel trouper for over two decades


Writer’s remarks: 2021 is holding a personal significance to me, as this year is the 20th anniversary of me being a steel and metals industry journalist, the career that I have pursued with great passion and full of joy. To mark the special year, in the weeks to come I will interview a few in China’s steel industry that, just like me, have witnessed it evolve, for their own stories and their observations.

All the interviews are my way of showing great respect for them and the many like them that have spent their young days in the industry, quietly contributing in their own way to its development and its future.

Here comes the first interviewee’s story -- by Hongmei Li from Mysteel Global.

This industry insider is a fount of knowledge about the early days of China’s steel industry. For my chat, he prefers to remain anonymous, so I’ll refer to him as Mr. J. I cannot recall when I first introduced myself to him and he cannot recall our first conversation either, but after having compared notes, we must have got to know each other for at least 10 years. He became my valued contact and friend around 2016 when he took the trouble to commute halfway across Beijing by train just to support my ferrous market sharing in Beijing in a hot summer day that year.

I was very touched by his kindness and sincerity, especially as he has always been a busy man working as a medium-level managerial staff in a research institute. I still remember the long chat we had about the Chinese steel market for more than one hour over a cup of coffee at the hotel, the event venue. He probably had no idea that from that day, I had accepted him into my close circle of solid industry friends, a welcome I always hesitate to extend.

J was born in Beijing, and like so many in China’s capital city, he spent all his school years there including his postgraduate program majoring in finance and business. In the late 1990s he joined China’s then Ministry of Metallurgy, helping to coordinate the sales and production planning among the Chinese steel mills when the planned economy was still active in the sector. His job was also to communicate with overseas organizations and government institutions regarding anti-dumping and countervailing cases brought against Chinese steel products one or two years later.  

When his ministry was rationalized as part of the central government’s efforts to remove and merge ministries so as to slim down governing bodies under the State Council, he was reemployed as a market researcher in a semi-government organization, still focusing on steel. Later, around 2013, he became a specialist in iron ore when the raw material market had entered centre stage, and at that time, iron ore pricing volatility was attracting public scrutiny and price gyrations were recognized as a threat to the profitability and survival of the Chinese steel producers.

One or two years ago, he was assigned to help coordinate with the organization’s events and marketing sector.

Looking back on his over 20 years in the ferrous business, he’s amused at how his career has progressed. “I feel that every three to four years, I have been either changing my job or moving from one department to another, adapting myself to the new working environments or the new challenges. Funnily, it had never occurred to me that with my Master’s degree, I could have moved into the financial world, earning big bucks!”

Instead, he has been diligently working in every assigned role with great devotion since 1997 until now, still earning peanuts, he joked.

From the perspective of his many years of working in China’s ferrous industry and interacting with the ferrous communities in foreign countries, he identified many pros and cons about his career in what has become the world’s largest steel industry.  

“In China, there is not so much discussion about a job scope,” he explained to me. “As a junior, you were expected to do everything from running all kinds of errands to drafting important reports for the senior officials in the ministry. You have to multi-task, but that has also denied you of the luxury of time to deeply explore any particular areas that you have been assigned even if you are very much intrigued,” he added.

“The drawback is rather obvious in that once this multi-functioning person moves on, no one in the same department can readily take on the daily workload immediately,” he said.

“In foreign countries, though, staff are generally assigned a specific area and they will build up their expertise along the way, enabling them to grow into a professional with great in-depth knowledge in their particular market, though they hardly know as well about the other areas,” he said.

The many years of working in China’s ferrous industry have also enabled him to look at the bottleneck of iron ore supplies for China’s steel producers from the inside.

“Whether you complain about (the assessment of) a certain PRA, the lack of pricing power among the Chinese steel mills, or the short-sightedness of raw material suppliers, the root cause lies with us in China. Our steel industry is just too dispersed, and when you have hundreds of buyers approaching a few suppliers, the balance is tilted, and such circumstances will lead to all sorts of issues,” he maintained. “(But) business is just business, whether it is about iron ore or steel trading.”

To get rid of the disadvantageous position in the iron ore trading, China has no choice but to streamline its steel capacity, to reduce the number of producers, and to erect more electric arc furnaces in the country, all to be achieved staring 2021 via greater emphasis on eco-friendliness, low carbon emissions, and advanced steelmaking technology.

At the end of our hour-long pleasant chat, I asked about his post-retirement plans, even though he still a few years to go before reaching China’s compulsory retirement age of 60. He surprised me by revealing his dream to become a gym coach. I knew he liked working out to keep fit but I had not realized how serious he is about it.

He is definitely aiming at gaining expertise in the sports world, but I guess that even here, steel won’t be too far out of his reach – with all the dumbbells, treadmills, and weights around him.

Singapore Exchange might even have modelled their trophies after some people just like J that have moved from steel production to steel-consuming ends, trophies or gym facilities.

SGX Trophies for Mysteel’s iron ore research and brokerage services