Q&A with Ian Higgins, LCM’s Managing Director

Q&A with Ian Higgins, LCM’s Managing Director

Ian Higgins, Managing Director of Less Common Metals has more than 26 years’ experience in the rare earth industry. Ian has been with LCM for 20 years and before that worked at Johnson Matthey Rare Earth Products.

Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your career path
At school, I always had a strong interest in technical matters and how things work, in particular how chemistry and material science enable everyday objects to function. This led to my choice of further education, initially a degree in Chemistry and Geological Science, followed by a PhD in high-temperature materials.

After university, I joined the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority as a scientist, working on non-fuel ceramics such as silicon carbide. Four and a half years later I joined Johnson Matthey as Technical Manager, eventually moving to Johnson Matthey’s subsidiary company, Rare Earth Products, where I was introduced to the wonderful world of rare earth elements.

Over the past 26 years in the industry, first with Rare Earth Products and, from 2001, with LCM, I have been involved in product and process development, supervised the analytical laboratory, worked as Production Manager, overseen the Quality system and taken the role of Commercial Manager with responsibility for both purchasing and sales. Although I hasten to add, none of these roles were undertaken at the same time! These experiences in so many different facets of the two companies proved invaluable for my appointment as General Manager of LCM in 2008 followed by Managing Director in 2011.

What makes Less Common Metals stand out from other companies in the rare earth magnet industry?
We can point to 29 years of excellence in several areas. Firstly, the senior management has always had a strong technical leaning. This has determined the culture of the business in terms of maintaining the highest level of technical support and understanding for our products. In addition, we focus on customer service, building strong relationships along the supply chain and maintaining operations to the highest possible quality, environmental, health and safety standards.

LCM has a comprehensive understanding of the supply chains for our raw materials and is constantly working to keep this knowledge updated. Such understanding is essential for us to maintain and further enhance our competitive edge.

From the very start, LCM has been independent of any magnet producer. This makes our position in the market pretty much unique and positions the company well to work closely, and in confidence, with individual magnet makers to develop improved formulations and products.

How do you see the company changing in the next two years?
The dominance of China in the rare earth magnet industry is widely recognised. Currently, LCM is working, with support from our shareholders, to establish viable non-Chinese alternatives for our key raw materials. Over the next two years, we envisage these activities bearing fruit, leading to LCM becoming more integrated with its upstream supply chain to the benefit of both existing and new customers for magnet alloys.

We are also now actively looking at diversification into alloy systems other than those based on rare earth elements. For this, we are focusing closely on the core competencies of alloy melting, casting and characterisation. Given the success of work to date we anticipate that these new alloys will become a significant part of our business over the next two years.

Since 2001 LCM has enjoyed the services of an excellent analytical laboratory, staffed by specialists who have contributed hugely to the company’s success. Going forwards we will look to further benefit from the expertise of our analytical staff and the capabilities of the laboratory. Through the use of the existing facility and by enhancing the laboratory via new capital investment, we will look to develop current activities of providing a contract analytical service for external customers.

How does LCM fully understand customer needs and maintain a good relationship?
The true rare earth industry is small, and this helps LCM keep close and regular contact with all our customers. Our focus is on maintaining contact at all levels, including technical, production and logistics as well as for commercial matters. To help with this process, LCM staff have spent extended periods in our customers’ factories, learning more about their activities and how we can further improve our levels of service.

LCM also shares our knowledge and experience of the upstream supply chain with key customers to ensure they are kept aware of the dynamics and possible developments within the industry.

What has the biggest achievement been in your career?
In 2017 our new shareholders asked LCM to establish a fully commercial facility for the production of rare earth metals from oxides. Previous attempts to achieve this had made it clear just how big a challenge it would be to access Chinese technology and adapt it to Western-world production standards.

Nevertheless, I was fortunate to enjoy the support of an excellent team, both in the UK and China, and this resulted in a project that exceeded all expectations in terms of smoothness of operation and achieving all the objectives. For me, the project was an excellent illustration of what can be achieved with correct planning and execution. I thank all those who worked on the project for their contribution to its success.

How is LCM preparing to ensure a smooth run post-Brexit?
Arrrrgh no, not the “B” word!

Given LCM’s close links with Europe, together with the global and highly competitive nature of the rare earth industry, it is fair to say we would have preferred for Brexit never to have even been mooted. Nevertheless, we must operate in the environment we find ourselves in and, as such, have made the necessary plans as far as possible given the ongoing uncertainties.

Firstly, LCM already exports materials to counties outside the EU, for example; Switzerland, Japan, and USA to name three. As such we already have an established export infrastructure and, supported by UK Government guidelines, are now ensuring this is all appropriate for ongoing business with the EU27 countries.

LCM participates in several EU-funded collaborative development projects which we regard as core to the future of our business. Fortunately, the UK Government has already committed to underwrite funding for UK companies involved in established projects.

As with any change of circumstances, LCM must actively identify opportunities as well as mitigating threats. Here the UK Government has declared its commitment to strengthening the domestic manufacturing base in support of the new electric economy. LCM’s position in the permanent magnet supply chain makes us ideally placed to contribute to these initiatives. Already LCM has entered dialogue with relevant Government bodies. We will look to both support these policies and play a central role in strategies to take the UK industry forward.

In just three words, how would you describe LCM?
Professional, Ethical and Knowledgeable

How would you describe your work ethic in one word?