By Dr. Stan Trout | Spontaneous Materials
It has been over 20 years, but I was asked this question when I approached a potential customer, during my days of selling rare earths. At first, I will admit that I was mildly miffed by the question, but slowly came to understand its true significance. In the parlance of the automotive industry, being qualified means that you have successfully completed a thorough due diligence process to verify that your company can actually supply the product the customer needs. This may seem like an excessive exercise, but spending some time making sure things will run smoothly early on is actually a very good purchasing strategy. My experience with automotive customers was that there was a fair bit of work at the beginning of the sales cycle, but it was worth the effort, provided you ultimately sold something. Once things got started, the business was usually uneventful, until someone said the ominous words “end of life,” but that may be a good topic for another blog.
These days I have been watching the rare earth industry as the projects outside of China try to become viable businesses. I have been amazed at the limited amount of work being done to establish business. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on the earlier stages of the process, geology and metallurgy, and little on the sales and marketing side. In my humble opinion, this is out of balance. I’ll admit to some bias in this regard, since I was taught that the sales group needs to lead the company, regardless of what the organization chart might say. Today, some companies are planning or building plants for hypothetical customers they have never met, and that is never a good idea. My guess is that many people severely underestimate the difficulty of establishing new business because they have never done it before. This is understandable. It is easy to look at the pricing data in Metal Pages or Asian Metals and imagine that selling rare earths must be easy because people are doing it every day.
While selling rare earths may look easy, it is not always so. The sales cycle in the rare earth business can easily last a year. Consequently, this is not an activity to put off until the very last minute. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in September, Ms. Amanda Lacaze, the CEO of Lynas encouraged her staff to “go out there and sell.” While I agree with her message, the timing seems belated. My advice would be get out there, get qualified, and do it quickly. Delaying will be fatal.
About the Author
Dr. Stan Trout has more than 35 years’ experience in the permanent magnet and rare earth industries. Dr. Trout has a B.S. in Physics from Lafayette College and a Ph.D. in Metallurgy and Materials Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Stan is a contributing columnist for Magnetics Business & Technology magazine. Spontaneous Materials, his consultancy, provides practical solutions in magnetic materials, the rare earths, technical training and technical writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.