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Learning the Logistical Ropes under Mildred

The tenth exclusive for Dynamic Commodities in my series- becoming a commodities trader

Mildred Epstein was in charge of training the traffic clerks that came up through the ranks at Philipp Brothers. She was no more than five feet tall, in her early seventies with a perpetual frown on her face. Mildred shuffled her feet and seemed harmless, but this little woman had quite a reputation. With over thirty years at the company, she trained many of the senior traders when they were lehrlings before the firm would allow them to handle a traffic desk for a commodity. David Tendler, the head man at Phibro-Salomon, came through her department as did the notorious Marc Rich.

It was Mildred’s job to teach the nuts and bolts of operations and traffic or transporting a raw material from point A to point B. She did this by assigning those assigned to her area the task of invoicing for deals done around the firm. In the days before computers, each transaction had a folder that contained all of the documentation about a trade. The contracts spelled out the responsibilities for the buyer and seller. As Philipp Brothers was a merchant, most transactions had a purchase and a sale element, and the seller and buyer were often on different ends of the earth. Therefore, the commodities needed to move and the folder for a buy and sell trade contained all of the shipping and insurance documentation as well as third party verification of weights, analysis and other critical information about the raw material that was the subject of the trade.

Traffic personnel would drop their folders off at Mildred’s area for final invoicing, and she would assign the job to her trainees and then scrutinize the process with what amounted to a microscopic analysis of each deal and the intern’s performance. Some of the invoices were simple, but others like concentrate deals that included treatment charges and refining could be very complicated. Mildred required perfection, and she was not shy about showing disapproval. Many of the traffic clerks that graduated from her school of details did not like the grandmotherly boss; she had tortured them for months before they eventually were assigned to a specific commodity desk. The feeling was mutual as few in the company were up to Mildred’s standard of the skills and demeanor necessary to be a competent traffic clerk.

There were rules in her department located in a corner of the twenty-fourth floor. No pens, only pencils, no erasures that were not complete and absolute, no idle chat and no mistakes were allowed when one of her trainees finally brought an invoice into her office for review. After the first day with Mildred, I understood why I failed the traffic test the first time. The review process was an interrogation, any mistakes or wrong answers to her questions, the trainee had to go back and redo the assignment from scratch. Many times, it took a dozen or more tries of her deliberate, quiet and accusing tone before she would finally accept the work with a frown and an allocation of the next folder for the intern to tackle.

Mildred arrived at seven AM on the dot every morning; she must have caught the same train each day. She left at precisely five-thirty PM. After years at the company delivering telexes, I made it a point to be at my desk at least ten minutes before she arrived and to not leave until at least ten minutes after she put on her cloth coat and shuffled off to the elevator bank at the end of the work day. When I arrived there were two of us in her section; I sat next to a guy who I had never seen before by the name of Rick Velayo. Mildred had lots of folders for each of us, and she was a tough taskmaster.

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Post Series: Origin Of A Commodities Trader

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