Trader spent career peddling grain

When Terry James was a young pup in the grain trading business, George Richardson told him something he’s always kept in the front of his mind: “It’s your name. It’s your reputation. It’s your word. It’s your bond.”

Richardson, the patriarch of the family whose name is synonymous with Winnipeg’s grain trade, told him that trading was all about trust.

“It helps to have a company behind you, like Richardson, but it’s going to be your name, your bond, that’s going to be of value to you throughout your career.”

After 44 years as a grain trader, James has retired, closing the books on a trading career that has gone from the days of phone booths and yellow pages to those in which hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain are traded by text.

He is leaving an industry that has gone from an eight-rail car shipment of oats being considered large to today’s multiple 134-car trains being dispatched to fill orders.

It’s been a massive revolution in technology, volume, efficiency and speed in the world grain trade, but one in which the keystone virtues of reputation and personal connection haven’t changed at all.

“Did you talk to them? On the phone?” is a question James sometimes has for young traders, who like texting but often seem scared to make a phone call to the trader on the other side of deals. When a deal stalls, nothing works better than making that human connection.

“Pick up the phone and phone the guy.”

James isn’t a farm boy. He was born in Thunder Bay, Ont., went to high school in Nelson, B.C., and attended the University of Sask-atchewan for one year before switching to the University of British Columbia to study business. He wanted to be a trader. 

He applied to Richardson Securities in 1972 after graduation, just “for practice” before doing interviews for the big banks and brokerage companies that he was actually interested in joining.

“That interview started me off on a 44 year career,” James said as he sat in a cafe beneath the Richardson Building, which dominates Winnipeg’s iconic Portage and Main intersection.

He was convinced to try grain trading and spent a year learning about the grain trade in Richardson grain elevators, terminals, feed mills, merchandising offices and inspection centres before being sent east to Ontario.

“Earn your keep,” he was told, and he tried, as he built a Richardson presence in the southern Ontario grain economy. 

He travelled town to town “obtaining” the yellow page listings for all the local grain elevators and merchants, which helped him build a formidable Rolodex when he got back to Toronto. In those days there were no centralized listings of dealers and no Google to find contacts.

James built up a base of contacts and the Richardson business in Ontario, buying and selling within Ontario and even beginning to export out of Ontario to Quebec and overseas.

He was lured to Winnipeg, the home of Richardson, not by that company but by rival Louis Dreyfus, with whom Richardson had many dealings.

Louis Dreyfus wanted to boost its Canadian exporting business, so hired James in 1979 and let him build a booming business.

Fortuitously for the Canadian grain trade, that year saw the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. export ban on the Soviets. The move created a massive new market for Canadian grain, which James strove to feed by shipping Canadian grain there while importing U.S. grain to satisfy domestic Canadian demand.

He was once raided by the RCMP, which suspected he was illegally re-exporting U.S. grain to the Soviets, but “we were very careful.”

In 1987 he moved back to Richardson and became active in the western Canadian market, moving grain between various buyers and sellers, including oats to General Mills in the United States. He would buy oats from the Canadian Wheat Board and then ship it south to the U.S. 

“I had 99 percent market share,” said James.

Many things have changed since then: trains are getting larger, trading is getting faster and grain companies are becoming fewer.

Richardson has also changed radically, going from the seventh or eighth largest grain company in Canada to its largest.

James has bought and sold millions of tonnes of grain and shipped it all over the world, but he has no clue about the total tonnage he has marketed.

He said he and Richardson face few disputes and arbitrations, following a company culture of honourable dealings that he heard about 44 years ago from George Richardson.

“I treated that as gospel,” he said.

“You work it out. You stick by your deal.

Business partners from across the world travelled to Winnipeg in the summer for decades to visit James’ family cottage, where he, his wife, Mary, and his children would entertain them. 

This included giving grain traders from congested parts of Asia a chance to fish and chop wood.

“The Japanese guys would line up to chop wood,” said James. “They thought it was so much fun.”

He’s planning to go the other way now that he’s retired, heading overseas with Mary to enjoy the exotic locales to which he has sent millions of tonnes of grain but hasn’t always had time to enjoy.

However, he said he’s going to miss Portage and Main, where he saw his industry evolve so much.

“I’m going to miss the people. I’m going to miss the excitement.”

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