As the director of sales, global supply chain and trade compliance at Indium Corporation as well as Chair of the Minor Metals Trade Association, 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 to Cristina Belda
Knowing when to take a risk can be key to making progress in life. Donna Vareha-Walsh, from the US steel town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania knows that well.
She found her passion for the metal 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 and 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 Dot.com 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 the low-cost Asian plants and raw materials presented, she explained.
The customer for that project was Kennametal and led her to move to the company in September 2001. This is how I joined the metals industry; I started as a Business Unit Controller and stepped out of finance and I entered into the other side, the sales and operations side of it, after 3 years with the company, she explained.
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 may 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 expereinces to be successful later.
Little did she know when her journey began in handling those business challenges , 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 Corporation, 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 companys 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 the manufacturing going during Covid was a challenge, she recalled. We did (and we do) everything we can to make sure we keep the companys production running 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. Indium Corporation 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 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.
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 terrorist attack in New York, and the subprime mortgage financial crisis in 2008.
In 2001 when we had September 11, the market changed dramatically, she recalled. She had just started working for Kennametal then and her main concern was the risks 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. Business has held up better during the current global crisis of the pandemic. This time our business just excelled. 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 noted.
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 the pandemic has seen a lot more business growth for Indium Corporation: You see an increase in televisions, because you couldnt go anywhere. You have an increase in the gaming industry, in smartphones...".
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 on 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, she said. Each metal is different, but you really need to assess each one and determine what supply chain strategy we should have. You need to ask yourself: 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?
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. With extensive experience in cross-commodities markets, including APT, tantalum and cobalt, during a decade with Kennametal, followed by three years with specialty alloys producer Carpenter Technology Corporation, as director of global procurement with nickel, chrome, moly, niobium, etc. Since joining Indium Corporation in 2015 she has focused on tin, silver and gold and minor Metals, In, Ga, and Ge. 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, in operations..., she said.
Alongside her demanding role with Indium Corporation, in 2020 Vareha-Walsh was elected chair of the Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA), a not-for-profit organization that comprises companies actively involved in all aspects of the international minor metals sector.
Founded in 1968, the associations 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 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. I am the first woman in this position, but I am not sure why there has not been others... Throughout my career, I 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 and does it can excel at it. If you work hard the opportunity will come.
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 consumer, she explained. For example, Intel Corporation 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, she added.
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 consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our events are our major revenue driver and the pandemic limited our ability to hold one for 18 months, and given the global Covid restrictions the event was primarily limited to USA participants Vareha-Walsh said.
The MMTAs main annual event had to be cancelled twice due to travel restrictions, but the good news was 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 focused on best practiecs on how companies managed 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 prices of shipments skyrocketing. 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 if 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 important 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 recalled. So has the lack of face-to-face meetings impacted business? 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 that much.
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, a beer or a couple of drinkswith 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, in view of travel restrictions, she added.
Minor metals potential
The MMTAs 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 towards re-use 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, said Vareha-Walsh.
For example, indium metal recovery from ITO (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 LCDs (liquid crystal displays), one of its main applications, surged.
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 exchanges 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 changed and Chinas 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 observed.
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 behaviour interested parties are trying to get higher prices today to sell in a futures exchange.
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-Walshs 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, she said with a smile on her face. They bring a lot.
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 have the possibility to find and pursue every avenue in which they see an opportunity, she said. 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, Gary Weissman, she worked for supported her to achieve many of her goals and take the leap out of finance into sales and operations, she said. It is important that a mentor is judgement-free, that you can ask questions about any topics you are trying to deal with, someone that you can talk to openly, freely, she explained.
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, 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 concluded.
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