City man goes around the world in 80 trades

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In Canary Wharf, the trader evokes images of pinstriped suits and yelling at phones.

But former City analyst Conor Woodman has seen many different breeds around the world, and they don't all carry mobiles and briefcases.

After a few years working at firms such as Ernst and Young and Kaplan, Conor drifted into the world of TV and travel shows. It was here he came up with the idea of selling his flat, and pumping £25,000 into a challenge to explore trading cultures around the world.

His experiences are chronicled in Around the World in 80 Trades, a four-part Channel 4 series that debuted last Thursday.

They are also available in book form through Macmillan.

He said: "I always got that sense that you only scratch the surface of a place when you go on holiday. You meet a few people, you see some of the best buildings and beaches, and you dine in the best restaurants, but you never see the cogs of the machine.

"I thought it would be a great way of see how these places work. For most people in the world, working is trading, buying and selling, and markets are where these things happen."

Channel 4 took an interest in the project back in spring 2007, but required a pilot to see how it would work on screen.

Conor said: "I decided to go to Morocco and make some money in the carpet trade. I went up into the Atlas mountains, found a really high-quality Berber rug and then spent even more time haggling.

"This man couldn't work out what was going on, why this guy and a camera crew had come up there to haggle over his granny's rug. We got through hundreds of cups of mint tea.

"I then went to Marrakesh and persuaded a store-owner to lend me a corner of his shop so I could sell the rug, and I made a profit."

From March to September last year, Conor and his crew travelled down through Africa, passed from India to Central Asia and across mountains to western China, before heading overland to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico and Brazil.

He said: "Things kept changing.

"I wanted to do a coffee trade somewhere in the world, and I fancied Kenya. But then the situation in the area exploded and it just wasn't safe.

"I was going to buy Darjeeling tea in India and sell it on in Tibet, but then there was an uprising and China shut the borders. It was very loosely planned, in a back-of-a-fag-packet sort of way.

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"Everywhere is so different. When you're in North Africa people really have a haggling culture. They can spend all day doing it, telling really long stories and drinking lots of tea.

"When you're horse trading in Asia, they take your hand and lock it in a handshake, and it's really bad form to pull away.

"I had my flimsy hand in a horse farmer's huge hand until it started to hurt. They'll hold on and grip for about ten minutes over a horse.

"Crowds of people will gather so close to you that you can feel their breath on your face, and everybody will be shouting and cheering you on.

"There's no tea involved when you're horse trading in Kyrgyzstan. It's pretty brutal.

"Doing business in Japan was very hard. Frustration is the thing that really knocks you, when you have to deal with bureaucracy, closed markets and people that won't let you play.

"The best places were countries like Brazil, where they said, 'Have a go, if you think you can handle it'.

"It was nice coming home. Maybe you take it for granted, but when I got back to the UK, I had so many more contacts from growing up here and it was a massive advantage."

While Conor describes his travels as "the experience of a lifetime", its lessons have stuck with him even back in his native country.

He said: "I was on Portobello Road with my girlfriend buying a shawl at the market and I haggled about £2 or £3 off.

"The guy was pretty shocked, but I just thought, 'Why not?'. £3 is a cup of coffee, after all.
"I think it's more engaging. I will remember that experience better for having a bit of interaction with him. It just feels more human to me."

Around the World in 80 Trades is showing at 10pm on Thursdays on Channel 4. The book is published by Macmillan, priced at £17.99.

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Conor on leaving corporate finance:

"It really is right for some people. A lot of my friends love the cut and thrust, but I personally didn't find it very rewarding. I like thinking on my feet and doing things on my own.

"Previously, when I used to work in finance on a deal, it tended to involve about half a dozen lawyers, plus accountants and brokers.

"These were big money deals with very big safety nets. I preferred working without that safety net."

Conor on his favourite trade:

"When I got to the Far East, things got tough. It was around that time that I invested money in inflatable body boards.

"I'm a really rubbish surfer and I'd seen these in Devon. They stayed in the back of my mind, and when I was in China I knew I was in Mexico next and could sell these in the height of summer.

"I did some research in China in a dark internet cafe, and then drove off to a factory in a grim, grainy industrial estate which made them.

"I bought 750 of them in the end, and convinced a professional surfer to go out and try the board for me. He used it on one of the biggest shore breaks in the world, called the Mexican Pipeline.

"He came back with it almost in tatters, and told me it probably wasn't for professionals, but if he'd just surfed the biggest wave in Mexico with it, it could be great for kids and beginners.

"For the first time it seems as if everything was working out, and I stopped losing money. Looking back, I think that was the turning point."

Conor's advice for everyday trading:

"A lot of these things sound like cliches, but they're very important.

"You have to research your product. I lost money by going into things that I didn't take the time to fully understand.

"You've got to know it inside out. If you're not able to back up your product with knowledge, you're going to lose money.

"When you go into negotiations for anything, whether it's a house or a cow or a pay rise, it's a good idea to always know what your bottom line is.

"Work out the maximum price you're willing to pay for something. Actually write it on a piece of paper and put it in your pocket, so you know that if you can't get a deal under that figure you should always just walk away.

"On another piece of paper, write down your best case scenario and don't be afraid to ask for that.

"In the UK, we're really scared to ask for money off because we think it's rude, but that's crazy, especially considering the times we're going through at the moment."