Q&A: 8 Questions With Anglo American’s Benny Oeyen

EditorsMay 06, 2024

Q&A: 8 Questions With Anglo American’s Benny Oeyen

The executive talked about the importance of self-purchasers and how fuel cell electric vehicles are going to fuel demand for platinum.

Anglo American executive Benny Oeyen
Benny Oeyen is Anglo American’s executive head of market development for PGMs (platinum group metals), which include platinum and palladium.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to sit down with Benny Oeyen, Anglo American’s executive head of market development, PGMs (platinum group metals, which include platinum and palladium), to chat about the future of platinum as it pertains to jewelry and fuel cell electric vehicles.

We discussed the importance of people buying platinum jewelry as a little treat for themselves, how much consumers really care about sustainability, and the price of platinum, which sat at $964 an ounce as of press time.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Please also note, this interview was conducted prior to the news that BHP Group Inc. had made an unsolicited, and ultimately rejected, bid for Anglo American that would have involved Anglo spinning off its platinum business, as well as its iron ore operations in South Africa.

Michelle Graff: Anglo now has this partnership with Stuller for supplying responsibly mined platinum grain to its retailers. For me, this seems like a tipping point, of sorts, for sustainability.

Sometimes when we’re talking sustainability, we know customers in New York or San Francisco might feel that way but it’s not always representative of the rest of the country. When I saw that Stuller is doing this, I thought there must be a real call for it. Can you speak to that?

Benny Oeyen: Yeah, we think there was a real call for it. The platinum group metals, and specifically platinum, they’re kind of magic metals. They’re very young.

MG: What do you mean by young?

BO: They were discovered in mid-18th century, in 1750. In the world of metals, that’s … very young, very pure. It means we haven’t yet discovered many of the things you can do with them. And we’re discovering now more and more that they’re a key part of the “green” transition. So that’s a sustainability angle. We can talk about that later.

Secondly, also we think we have a sustainability [angle] to talk about how we mine our metals. We hold ourselves to the highest standards and we feel that this story is not told in the market. The bulk of the customers don’t [know about it]. 

We were like OK, we look at different markets, markets have different structures. The U.S. market, to our big surprise, is actually a very fragmented market. In order to then communicate, etc., you need to have an entrance door to this mass market and not communicate with all of them separately. So, we started engaging with [Stuller]. And you know, a corporate relationship is a bit like a personal relationship. You start dating a little bit and figure it out, and we figured out that we like each other. We work very well together.

To answer your question more specifically on sustainability, I think it’s an underestimated story of what platinum and the platinum group metals can do for the world. 

“The mentality of the ‘80s, like, just give me something that’s really nice and I don’t care how it’s made, etc. … that’s a bit gone.” — Benny Oeyen, Anglo American 

MG: Even though, as you mentioned, this market is fragmented, is sustainability something a lot of consumers are after today, whether they’re in Texas, Florida, Minnesota, California, or Pennsylvania?

BO: They are and especially in America because the American consumer is very educated, especially the younger ones, right? The mentality of the ‘80s, like, just give me something that’s really nice and I don’t care how it’s made, etc., … that’s a bit gone.

[Now, consumers] want to know a little bit about, where’s the product coming from, are we not destroying the Earth, etc. We feel there is a big field open there and I think we have a good story to tell in two vectors.

One is that platinum can help in the whole sustainability businesses in order to build a future energy system, that’s one, and secondly, the way we mine.

So, at Anglo American, we hold ourselves accountable to the highest mining standard, it’s called IRMA. This is the most severe one. It’s one that many miners don’t like because it’s an NGO one and many would like to make their own but we put that as our standard that we want to be measured against.

We now have several mines that are already IRMA certified, and we want [to get the whole group certified]. 

“The American market definitely still has a lot of potential for jewelry. There was this myth that young people don’t care about jewelry anymore. That is not showing in the numbers.” — Benny Oeyen, Anglo American 

MG: I want to talk a little bit too about Anglo American’s relationship with Platinum Guild International USA. Anglo American is now the sole sponsor of PGI USA. What makes Anglo so confident in the future of jewelry here? And when you look at jewelry, do you see growth in bridal or what we would call fashion, meaning non-bridal, jewelry?

BO: I think that the American market definitely still has a lot of potential for jewelry. There was this myth, which I now call an urban myth, 10 to 15 years ago, that young people don’t care about jewelry anymore. They want to take a cruise or a trip around the world or a romantic weekend in Paris rather than jewelry. That is not showing in the numbers.

MG: No. Jewelry absolutely exploded during the pandemic.

BO: Yep, there you go. We see a lot of potential there.

Secondly, we see a lot of potential for platinum because jewelry used to be very traditionally yellow and now there’s a lot of people who like the other colors. And we say if you want something that looks like platinum, it’s better to buy the real thing. We think if we tell our story with platinum, we have a lot of potential there.

And then to answer your question whether it’s bridal or whether it’s fashion, you know, you cannot convince people to get married with advertising campaigns. But you can convince people to self-purchase.

You don’t have to wait for a big occasion like a marriage; you can also be super-happy and buy something for yourself because you feel good about it. And there we think there’s a very big untapped potential still.

So, very concretely, we think bridal is like the foundation. It will always be there. And then on top of bridal, we can build the house of fashion, “Platinum Born” for example, but many other things we can do.

That is really how we see it.

Platinum Born earrings and necklace
The “Andromeda” earrings ($1,100), left, and matching “Andromeda” necklace ($6,900) from Platinum Born, the collection of everyday platinum jewelry launched in 2017

MG: I want to talk a little bit about price. Metal prices are always of interest to our readers. The price of platinum has been below the price of gold for some time now. Where do you see the platinum price going in the future?

BO: Listen, traditionally platinum has been higher than gold because it’s a diversified metal. It has the same usage as gold, for example store of value and jewelry, but then it has a lot of other [uses].

The main application [of platinum has historically been] in catalytic converters in internal combustion engine cars and then we had the whole story when the EVs (electric vehicles) started popping up … and [many believed] EVs are going to take over the market. And that [expected decline in future platinum demand] is now priced in the platinum price already.

I have worked over 20 years in the car business and in comparison, only six years in the mining business so I can speak with a little bit of authority on cars—believe me, EVs are not going to take over the market.

They’re going to take a big chunk, but they’re not going to be 100 percent of the market.

MG: Why?

BO: Because they’re just not practical for many people. There are some physical limitations [such as limited range and the time and infrastructure required to recharge them].

We think fuel cell electric vehicles [are the future] because a fuel cell electric vehicle is an electric car that drives like an electric car but the consumer behavior’s can be like a traditional gas/internal combustion engine car.

[In a fuel cell electric car], electricity is made on the spot on board by mixing hydrogen with outside air in a device called the fuel cell.

MG: So where does the platinum fit into this?

BO: In two parts; the first is to split water, it’s called electrolysis. So, H2O is water, and you want to split the “O” off. The device that does that is called an electrolyser, and one of the main types of electrolyser technology contains platinum. Platinum makes the chemical reaction when you put electricity in it so that oxygen is split off. That’s one part of the hydrogen story where platinum is present. 

And so now you have pure hydrogen, and you want electricity again. This is where a fuel cell comes in. So, we mix [the hydrogen] again with oxygen in an environment like a fuel cell where there is platinum to help the chemical reaction to release electricity. It’s essentially the same process as the electrolyser but in reverse. So, there you put electricity in and you have hydrogen; now, you take hydrogen, mix it with oxygen, you take electricity out.  

In a fuel cell, there is a lot of platinum. Without platinum as a catalyst, it simply doesn’t work.

 Related stories will be right here … 

MG: How many fuel cell vehicles are there on the road today?

BO: Not very many. Toyota has a Mirai, Hyundai has Nexo, and then are already four [hydrogen fuel cell vehicle] manufacturers in China. And BMW is now starting to look at it with the X5. 

The Achilles Heel is that you need a hydrogen refueling station. We’re facing there a chicken-and-egg situation. If you talk to the OEMs, the car manufacturers, [and ask], why don’t you make more fuel cell cars? They say because there are no stations. If you talk to Marathon or Texaco or Shell [and ask], why don’t you make more stations, it’s because there are no cars. 

It’s a classic chicken-and-egg. That will be broken by semis [that are used to transport goods long distances].

I’m from Belgium, so I have to give you a beer example. [If you drive] from Budweiser in St. Louis to Denver or something like that with a big truck, if you do that with batteries, you will have mainly batteries in the truck and a few pints of beer. And that’s where fuel cells are coming in.

There’s a lot of talks with the big trucking companies, Freightliner, Mack, Daimler. Then there’s Nikola, which is a truck manufacturer, a new startup that will make fuel cell trucks.

With these trucks along the big highways will come the hydrogen stations. It’s like diesel to the United States. United States doesn’t have passenger car diesel but there’s some big pickup trucks that drive with diesel. When I lived in Michigan, in my neighborhood gas station there was no diesel but, on the highways, I-75, I-94, [there was diesel]. It will be the same with hydrogen.

And that will create a lot of demand [for platinum]. 

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