Willem “Wim” Kooyker (pictured right), the secretive commodity trader who dominated markets like zinc in the 1980s, capitalised on China’s unprecedented supercycle through the 2000s and ran what was once the world’s largest commodities fund, has died. He was 80.
He died on November 3 in New York City after a sudden illness, according to a death notice in the New York Times.
The Dutch-born and US-educated Kooyker — pronounced like “Quaker” — created one of the most successful commodity trading firms of all time, Blenheim Capital Management LLC. At its height in 2011, it commanded more than US$9 billion in investments under management. A highlight of its two-decade stretch of wildly lucrative profits was a bet placed in 1999, when oil prices sank below US$10 a barrel, that commodities would bounce back. The hedge fund soared nearly 109 percent and billions of investor dollars poured in.
Until a rough patch in 2016, Blenheim posted an annual loss only five times in 30 years. Twice, it returned more than 100 percent, and a dozen times at least 20 percent, according to Blenheim investor presentations, letters to clients and interviews with people familiar with the fund.
Those lofty returns enabled Kooyker to charge unusually high fees. While most hedge funds charge “2 and 20” — an annual management fee equal to 2 percent of assets, plus 20 percent on any profits — Kooyker charged 2.25 percent and 25 percent, according to Blenheim investor letters and presentations.
Blenheim lost money in the financial crisis in 2008, bounced back in 2009 and 2010, then sank 23.5 percent in 2011, one of its worst years ever. More red ink flowed in 2012 and 2013 before a slight rebound in 2014.
Kooyker wound down Blenheim in 2019 and retired at 77. Bloomberg News reported that most of Blenheim’s investors transferred their assets to a newly launched fund, Valence Asset Management, co-headed by Kooyker’s son, Terence.
The closure marked the end of an era for the commodities hedge fund industry he helped pioneer. The popularity of his funds had waned as China’s appetite for raw materials stabilized and then slowed, sending prices to multiyear lows.
In the place of fundamental traders such as Kooyker, scores of low-profile, technically focused quantitative investors began holding greater sway, much to the chagrin of the old guard, including Astenbeck founder Andy Hall and Red Kite’s Michael Farmer, who viewed them as a disruptive force and a source of unnecessary volatility in the commodities markets.
Dutch football fan
Highly secretive in his professional life, Kooyker was known among his friends as a warm, sincere individual who could talk to a wide variety of people. He was an avid sports fan, one time dressing up for Halloween as a “rabid Dutch football fan,” decorating his face with orange paint in tribute to his native Netherlands.
He participated in the famous and grueling Dutch long-distance ice skating race in which participants compete over 135 miles (217 kilometers) across the canals that connect 11 cities in the province where he was born.
He was an avid supporter of mentorship programmes that benefited less-advantaged students.
He and his wife, Judith-Ann Corrente, were major donors to the New York Metropolitan Opera; his wife was its president and chief executive officer from 2015 to 2019.
Kooyker was born on September 22, 1942 in Leeuwarden, Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands, one of three sons of Willem Kooijker and Aukje Kooijker van Dusen. He grew up working alongside his brothers at his father’s bicycle shop, according to Page Ashley, a longtime friend.
He served as an officer in the Dutch Army and began his trading career in 1964 at Internatio-Muller in Rotterdam, a commodities firm that traced its origins to the famed Dutch East India Company. He climbed the ladder to become head of trading.
He moved to the US and attended Baruch College in New York. A biography of him on the website of the Manhattan-based college says he and other immigrant students “who shared the lack of family privilege” were given a tuition-free education. The experience helped launch his career and inspired his more than 30 years on the board of a mentorship program to assist at-risk youth. Throughout his life, he provided financial help to people who couldn’t afford an education.
Kooyker studied for his economics degree at night and during summer sessions, according to Baruch. By day, he traded coffee, cocoa and sugar from the New York office of a Dutch commodities company.
“The seeds of Baruch built the foundation of my macro thinking,” Kooyker said, according to the website. He said he “had to sign a letter promising to become a US citizen after completing my degree. It took me exactly one second to say, ‘No problem!’”
Kooyker worked at Princeton, New Jersey-based Commodities Corp., the legendary trading-company-cum-think tank that served as a training ground for early quants and market wizards Paul Tudor Jones, Louis Bacon and Bruce Kovner. He consistently returned to investors double-digit percentages, in one case 108 percent.
Starting with those days at Commodities Corp., Kooyker was known for rigorous risk management. If one of his portfolio managers ran up a 10 percent loss, higher-ups demanded to know why. If a loss reached 20 percent, managers were forced to sell positions and take month-long leaves. Worse than that, they were usually shown the door.
An admirer of Winston Churchill, Kooyker named his firm after Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace and ancestral home in Oxfordshire. Busts of the British statesman adorned its offices, including its headquarters in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, about 30 miles west of Wall Street.
In 2002, when the US under President George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, Kooyker said he saw opportunity. “The sword of Damocles is hanging over the world over whether or not we will invade Iraq, and oil prices could spike up further,“ Kooyker told BusinessWeek magazine. But the world was more than dollars and cents to him, according to Ashley, the family friend.
“I remember one night during the Bush presidency when he said something about ‘I hate these policies, I think so much of this is wrong. On the other hand, I’m making an enormous amount of money and it gives me the chance to do many good things with it,” she said in a phone interview.
“It was that humility that we don’t often associate with the business he was in. He’d always go back to feeling he was extraordinarily lucky and had a keen obligation to support the arts and to support education.” — Bloomberg