CRU Group: data-driven commodities digital transformation

Will Blake, Director of Technology & Analytics at CRU Group, discusses how data and data analytics is driving change in commodities

|Sep 10|magazine18 min read
Will Blake
CRU Group

Director of Technology & Analytics at CRU Group

 The digital transformation of every industry sector means that an immeasurable amount of data is being generated by businesses, industries and consumers worldwide every day. The effective harnessing and analysis of that data can generate significant value to companies through the greater understanding and insight of trends, and better prediction and forecasting that allows robust strategies to be delivered. 

The latter is where CRU comes in. The London-headquartered company uses data to offer unrivalled business intelligence on the global metals, mining and fertiliser industries through market analysis, pricing assessments and consultancy services. The content and insight provided by CRU gives a complete view of the commodity market, enabling operators and industry participants to make critical business decisions. 

Understandably, delivering such a comprehensive suite of services requires a robust and innovative technology and analytics strategy. Will Blake is responsible for driving this strategy. Will is a highly experienced technology leader, having spent more than 15 years at CRU and, previously, close to two years working as a geophysicist in a seismic exploration team. Data has been an overarching theme throughout his career, as he explains: “Geophysics is a data intensive role that requires the handling of large volumes of information - the oil industry was really one of the first that exploited the value of data in this way, so that experience has certainly given me a greater understanding of the challenges around information and data, as well as how we can effectively solve the issues our customers face.”

During his 15 years at CRU, Will has witnessed data, and the effective analysis of that data, play an increasingly important role in the business strategies of customers. “It’s been a huge transformation,” he notes. “Generally speaking, data is a lot more prevalent and is consumed from a host of different and new sources, such as increased automation and so on. Volume-wise, we’re dealing with so much more information that we analyse, so it’s a significant change. 

“Take the mining industry as an example,” Will continues. “Companies are producing reams of data and, at the same time, using a lot more to improve their operations. There’s a big increase in IoT devices at mining sites and satellite geospatial analysis for monitoring purposes, for example, which help to boost productivity, eliminate unnecessary costs and allow for the move towards predictive maintenance. At the same time, we’re seeing an acceleration in the drive towards automated mining and self-driving vehicles, which can operate around the clock. Not only can they improve production rates and safety, but provide greater availability of data and information to analyse.”

CRU has been operational for just over 50 years. And while the company has always been at the forefront of primary research and analysis, Will explains that the exponential growth of data and innovative technology has led to the company’s own digital transformation journey. “We started as a paper-based publisher that would publish thousands of industry reports each year. And, because we have clients in 90 countries worldwide, we’d have to transport that information to them by courier. Similarly, the data collection was also quite a manual process. 

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We’re also looking to drive a lot of automation and to improve our range of data sources, including satellite analytics

Will Blake | CRU Group

“What’s really changed is the accessibility of data,” he continues. “Clients used to be happy receiving a report once a year, or once a quarter, but now we’re no longer willing to wait for that information - technology makes everything instantaneous, so our whole cycle has had to change in terms of what we produce and how we produce it. It’s no longer about pulling information together and presenting it to the customer, people can often find that information easily elsewhere. To be successful, we have to add value and interpretation on top of that information, which CRU is very good at.”

To manage this transformation and add value, Will explains that CRU “pulled back to the information and the content, rather than focus around the technology, which people do have a tendency to do. The latest tools don’t necessarily matter that much, for us the focus has always been the accessibility of data and information, the understanding of what our customers need to help them make effective business decisions, and how often and in what format do they need it. Only once we have the answer to those questions do we consider the technology necessary to deliver on them.”

One essential implementation was a cloud-first strategy, he explains. CRU consumes content from a multitude of locations globally, and by working in the cloud the business is able to achieve the flexibility and technical delivery to maximise on any investment. Similarly, Will notes that the business has focused on building on its core in-house technical and data skill sets in order to deliver effectively to customers. “Data is pivotal, so we keep that expertise within the company. We partner with other companies on things that we don’t see as core to our direct business, so networking communications, front-end website development,” he adds. 

CRU specialises in market-leading research built on robust and transparent methodologies. Regardless of specific sector or operation, its customers typically use the content and information provided to inform critical business decisions such as whether to enter a certain commodity market, for example. It also offers price assessments from a team of specialists in London, Beijing, Mumbai, Pittsburgh, Shanghai, Singapore and Santiago. Will explains that primary research in these areas covers supply, demand, price and costs analysis; the content is also used to build proprietary models that inform CRU’s forecasting under the strapline of ‘where commodities meet economics’. 

Information provided by CRU helps organisations navigate challenging market conditions. This has been evidenced most recently in the company’s work during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Like all companies, CRU faced the challenge of shifting to a remote working business model. “It’s been very challenging,” Will highlights, “but as we have offices in Beijing and Shanghai, which both enforced home working in January, we were better placed to plan for any potential disruption. On 23 March we moved the whole global business - around 300 people - to home working and it’s worked remarkably well. Our cloud strategy proved to be very resilient and was a key enabler in allowing business to carry on effectively.”

The company has also been engaged in dedicated COVID-19 analysis to better understand how the virus is impacting commodities. “Disruption to supply chains has been significant,” Will states, “as well as short-term demand reduction. Alongside this, we’ve been tracking operational status of mines, smelters and refineries with our dedicated disruption tracker service, which has been embedded in our existing products. Our economics team has been closely analysing the impact of this disruption on global GDP and other economic indicators as our outlook shifts from what’s happening now to what does the future look like for our customers.”

As to that future, Will describes a rapidly changing market that is showing the first signs of stability. Forecasting, he notes, always has a degree of flexibility, but CRU is experiencing commodities customers seeking answers to longer term questions, which demonstrates the response to COVID shifting from a survival mentality to one of strategically planning for the future. 

For CRU, future plans revolve around continuing to develop core services and the implementation of new technologies, says Will. “We still have work to do to harness the volumes of data we need and make it more accessible - it’s a never ending evolution in that respect. We have just purchased a new data platform that will drive this growth and offer a greater range of analysis. We’re also looking to drive a lot of automation and to improve our range of data sources. The latter includes satellite analytics, which provides an enormous wealth of information at a global scale.”

“In terms of our business, there are two big trends that will drive what we do: increasing electrification of transport and the changing structure of power generation, and carbon emissions and environmental sustainability. Both will contribute hugely to how our customers operate and they’ll form a key strategic area for us to move into.”

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