Profile: A worthy test of his mettle: Raj Bagri, appointed to head the LME, judges his worth by his achievements. David Bowen reports

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The Independent Online
ONLY ONCE in an hour and a half does Raj Bagri let out a belly laugh. This is when he is asked about the entry in the Sunday Times Book of the Rich that says he is worth pounds 60m, making him the 141st richest person in Britain and the fifth richest Asian. 'I would like to know from the writer of that book where that money is,' he says.

Mr Bagri, who takes over as chairman of the London Metal Exchange next month, is not impressed by his inclusion in the list. Begging letters increased tenfold after it appeared. More important, he says, 'what my worth is is not of major concern to anybody. I'd rather be known by how good and bad I am.' In any event, he adds, he has no idea how rich he is.

Raj Bagri would rather talk about metal. He is now 62 and has been in the industry for 47 years. The company he built up and owns, Metdist, is one of 17 ring-dealing members of the LME: as such it is part of the elite that sets the world prices for most non-ferrous metals. For a metal man, chairmanship of the LME - still the centre of the world industry - is the ultimate accolade. That he is the first non-Briton to get the job is a bonus, but no more.

'I'm very proud of my ethnic origins, but I've never flown the ethnic flag,' he says. 'I regard myself as part and parcel of the international metal fraternity, and would like to be judged without special favours.'

Mr Bagri is sitting in his office next to Cannon Street station in the City of London. He is a friendly man, with bushy grey-black eyebrows, thinning hair and eyes that twinkle easily behind fashionably oversized tortoiseshell glasses. On the walls are lush paintings from the Hindu saga, the Mahabharata. These, he is careful to point out, were painted by a Muslim artist.

Whatever he says about his money, and despite repeated protestations that he is nothing special, Mr Bagri is a man whose story would warm the cockles of a Victorian (or Thatcherite) heart. He was an outsider who through hard work and determination became an insider; along the way he became a multi-millionaire.

He was born in 1930 in Calcutta. His family was middle-class, but because his father died when Raj was three, he left school at 15 and became an apprentice at a local metal trading company, Metal Distributors. Even as a filing clerk or warehouseman he worked 14 hours a day. 'I found it fascinating,' he says. 'Whatever metal I saw, I liked. I used to volunteer to do the jobs of people who wanted to go home early.'

When he was 19, by now working in the trading department, he cajoled his boss into 'wasting a few thousand rupees' sending him on a trip around the Far East. His idea was to persuade tin smelting companies to break with tradition by selling direct to his company, rather than through one of the British-owned trading houses. He knew the chances of success were remote but, he says, 'luck was on my side. I got typhoid in Rangoon on my first leg.'

In his terms this was lucky, because it meant he could struggle on to Penang with a high fever, where a Mr McKay took pity on him. 'He decided that because I was prepared to die for my cause the least he could do was to give me a deal. Then I could die more comfortably.'

He recovered, and found he had developed a taste for a deal. 'When people told me about international business I licked my lips. The thought of making a lot of money was not in my mind. What fascinated me was the business itself.'

At 24 he was sent off on a business-spotting trip around the world. In London, which was foggy and overpowering, he found the metal bigwigs were all too busy to find time for him.

But he was not put off and five years later, in 1959, he came back to set up an office for Metal Distributors. The managing director of a large British company with offices in India greeted him: 'Oh, Mr Bagri, you have come to drive us out of England.' He responded: 'No more than you are driving us out of India.'

He spent the Sixties acting as a bridge between his principals in Calcutta and foreign metals companies. At the heart of the business was the London Metal Exchange, and the ring, where deals were struck in frantic five-minute sessions, was at the core of the heart. In 1970 he applied for ring membership for his company. He was told that because of India's exchange controls it would not be accepted, but that if he set up a company he could join in his own right.

He ran both Metdist, his own vehicle, and the Metal Distributors office, until 1980, when he split from the Indian group. Metdist is very successful but is no giant, turning over pounds 350m on its trading activities. It is unknown outside the metals world, having avoided the rapid expansion that brought trouble to the likes of Philipp Brothers. In part this is because Mr Bagri decided he wanted to diversify from pure trading which, as a good puritan, he regards 'not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end'.

'Philosophically I don't like to speculate,' he says. 'We do not normally take positions on metals prices or currencies, and we believe we should add value.'

This line led him naturally to manufacturing. He looked around for a country where he could operate without attracting the hostile attentions of the giants, settled on Malaysia, and built a copper wire plant there. It was successful, and five years ago he spent pounds 65m on a copper tube plant, again in Malaysia, to feed the fast- expanding Far Eastern air- conditioning industry. It started operating earlier this year. Metdist now makes 50,000 tonnes of copper products a year, compared with 5,000 ten years ago.

According to Ralph Kestenbaum, vice-chairman of the LME and joint managing director of Gerald Ltd, Mr Bagri has been successful because he is both hard and soft at the same time: 'He combines perspicacity with a very calm personality. He is not shy about making his feelings known, but he has a manner that can't turn you off. I have never heard a word spoken against the man.'

His 33-year-old son, Apurv, has taken over Metdist's day-to-day operations. His daughter married into the wealthy Birla family and lives in India. Raj has houses in Bombay and in London's St John's Wood, where he lives in 'a typical Hindu household'.

He will probably retire to India, but not just yet. For now his eyes are on the LME, to which he is intensely loyal. 'It would never have occurred to me to get involved in the exchange without him pushing me,' Mr Kestenbaum says. The LME, which used to be something of an English gentleman's club, has evolved rapidly enough to sustain its world leadership; Mr Bagri's election is evidence of that. 'He was chosen not because he was an Indian, but because he was an excellent choice,' Mr Kestenbaum adds. 'Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult to make that choice.'

Mr Bagri himself believes that hard work can overcome everything. 'Anyone coming from outside will have to work harder and a little longer, but by and large Britain is a fair society,' he says. 'I would say to young Asians: persevere, and prove you have it in you to stand up and be counted. People should not feel for you because you happen to be black, brown or whatever.'

They certainly should not count on the government. 'I'm a non-political man, but I do believe in free enterprise. There is nothing a state can do that a man cannot do better himself.'

He is, with prompting, prepared to reconsider the matter of his wealth. 'I have a comfortable life. I don't owe people money. I have reasonable luxuries, but my life ethic is not to over-indulge. I eat well. I don't drink. I don't smoke.'

'It is nice to have the assurance you are reasonably independent. But I have an inner discipline that tells me that very expensive things should be admired but not owned.'

After a long silence, he says: 'Money by itself has not motivated me. It may sound pompous, but my over-riding aim was to show I could achieve something and be regarded as a reasonably respectable member of the metals community.'

He finishes with an Indian tip, which he translates into English: 'You should have a personality so strong that the gods ask you what you want to be before they send you down.'

Next time round Mr Bagri will undoubtedly ask to return to the LME.

(Photograph omitted)

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