When John Schonenberger joined the European Copper Institute 12 years ago, he was entering unfamiliar territory.
He had no direct experience working with copper, he had worked with chemicals for 25 years, at the global petrochemical company Exxon. Moreover, he was moving from a major global company with 14,000 employees to a small organisation that had existed for only 18 months.
“I was going from a building with 800 people working in it to a building with ten people. It was an enormous change,” says Schonenberger. “I went from a very successful process and procedure-driven global monolith to a small independent association.”
But Schonenberger says that the directors of the European Copper Institute (ECI), which was formed in 1998 to represent the copper industry's interests, were passionate about expanding its presence. Before long, under Schonenberger, the ECI grew from a small office in London into a network of 11 national associations co-ordinated from Brussels.
At Exxon, he had worked in a variety of managerial positions in different areas and countries. Schonenberger, who is 58, started with the company after graduating from Edinburgh university with a degree in engineering, in 1974. He moved up from being a process engineer in Fawley in the UK to business manager in Brussels and Texas. When Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999, Schonenberger decided it was time to look in a new direction. “The opportunities offered to me within the company didn't match up to my own expectations,” he says.
After spending some time looking around, Schonenberger was introduced to the ECI. “Even though I knew very little about copper, I knew quite a lot about running a business,” he says. “And running an industry association is running a business. You have customers – the members who are paying the bills. You also have the people who you want to influence – people who decide to use copper versus something else.”
Schonenberger says that he has come to feel passionately about copper. “What attracted me to copper is that it's a material that is very important in a number of areas that are critical to today's societal needs,” he says. “Whether its energy efficiency, greenhouse-gas reduction, safe drinking water or anti-microbial copper for healthcare, it delivers. It's a 7,000-year-old product, but it's still at the heart of today's processes.”
But the range of copper's uses poses challenges. “Copper has quite a fragmented value chain because it goes into so many different applications,” he says.
“We represent the mining companies who physically produce copper metal. For that front end of the value chain, copper is copper, and where it goes is somewhat secondary.
“But we also represent their customers – the producers of semi-fabricated products, and those companies then sell further down the value chain to people who usually do something else with the copper,” he continues.
“It's a long value chain; the material changes hands several times. We have to marry the interests of people who want to expand their mines and their customers who want to sell higher-performing products and perhaps use less copper by making materials and products that are lighter or thinner.”
Schonenberger says the ECI finds itself working with customers to make their use of copper more efficient, and then working with the miners to make up for that loss by finding new applications. “The key to running a good industry association is making all members happy.”
Efficiency remains a key policy area. The ECI worked hard to have copper's perspective heard during the long, difficult talks about the energy-efficiency directive. Eco-design rules – the energy efficiency of buildings – are also focuses of attention. So too is access to raw materials: it is closely involved with the resource-efficiency roadmap, as well as the Commission's recent strategy paper on raw materials.
Schonenberger is particularly interested in increasing recycling. “We all sense there is a huge opportunity for urban mining,” he says. “There are probably many cables left underground, because people thought it was easier to leave them there than to dig them up and recycle. From a European policy point of view, the more we can get from recycling, the better.”