In the commodities-trading capital of the world, staff at most of the biggest companies are returning to their offices and some are even venturing back into the skies for business flights.
“In Switzerland, we have been quite lucky,” said Gerard Delsad, the Geneva-based managing director of Vitol Group, the largest independent oil trader. “It has been very stable.”
Geneva, home to many of the heavyweight merchants of oil, grains and metals, didn’t dodge an outbreak of covid-19 but Switzerland as a whole has brought the virus under control much faster than other global trading hubs.
Delsad spoke on Monday as about a third of Vitol’s 180 Geneva-based employees returned to the office. Next week, they will work from home again in rotation with another group that will be back in the building.
Restaurants and shops have been open for weeks, and even sex work, which is legal in Switzerland, was back to business on June 6. Many of those employed in the commodities-trading sector, which at about 20 billion Swiss francs ($21 billion) or 4% of GDP is larger than the country’s tourism industry, have also returned to their workplaces.
“I work about a day-and-a-half a week in the office,” said Mercuria Energy Group CEO Marco Dunand. The trading house handles more than 2 million barrels of oil and petroleum products each day.
Dunand set up his workspace in a Mercuria boardroom at its office on Rue du Rhone, Geneva’s priciest shopping street. The former Goldman Sachs executive, who has family roots in Geneva dating back some five centuries, is spending the rest of his work time up a mountain in the Swiss Alps conducting meetings via video conference.
Commodities trading is responsible for some 35,000 direct jobs at more than 500 trading companies in Switzerland and outstrips Swiss bank financial services as the country’s top services export. While many in the sector are back at their work stations, they’ve done so gingerly with new strict social-distancing protocols.
“Even in Geneva where things are ‘back to normal’ they are not exactly back to the pre-virus normal,” Dunand said.
At bigger rival Trafigura, the number of traders and staff in the Geneva office has been steadily rising over the past few weeks. They’re following government guidelines including limiting one person to an elevator and keeping distances of more than a meter at desks. Trafigura traders are now permitted to resume flights for “essential business,” a spokeswoman confirmed. She declined to say whether staff would be flying by private jet or commercial.
Traders working in Geneva can easily walk, drive or cycle to the office in the small city. Face masks are not mandatory in Switzerland and borders with neighboring Austria, France and Germany have reopened.
“We continue to follow local regulations and guidance closely, including in Geneva, where our staff is in weekly grouped rotation between work-from-home and the office,” said Seth Pietras, a spokesman for Gunvor Group, one of the five biggest independent energy traders whose main office is in Geneva.
Cofco International, the Geneva-based global trading arm of China’s biggest food company, returned to its office in the city on rotating shifts during the first week of June. Business travel remains banned, a spokesman said.
Agribusiness giant Cargill is also seeing staff return, with its new Geneva trading office welcoming back about 70 workers, or about 20% of the total, this week. There are no plans to increase that amount in the immediate future and the company is taking a “controlled and phased” approach that includes scores of new office procedures and protocols, a spokesman said.
Even though much of Geneva’s commodities-trading industry is back, the way the city’s traders do their jobs will remain flexible with remote work, according to Mercuria’s Dunand.
“There may be a new way of working,” he said. “It won’t be 100% the same.”