When Colin Topham was 14, his father, a banker with RBC, moved his family to Taiwan to accept a posting there. Topham spent four years in Taiwan, becoming fluent in Mandarin.
After returning to Vancouver, he pursued Pacific Asian studies at the University of Victoria, focusing on Chinese economics and politics. His knowledge of China and fluency in Mandarin would later come in handy as an agricultural commodities trader.
After a stint working for a tech start-up in Singapore, he returned to Canada and briefly got involved in politics, serving as executive director for B.C. of the Liberal Party of Canada.
In 2005, he landed a job as a senior trader with IT&T Trading Inc., a small, family-owned agricultural commodities trading company run by a friend, Ann Takagi, whom he married in 2008.
While with IT&T, Topham developed markets in China for western Canadian pea farmers and carried those relationships over to Singapore-based Agrocorp International PTE after IT&T had to be dissolved when Takagi’s parents divorced. About 25% of Agrocorp’s market is now in China.
“That was my main objective at IT&T – to develop the China market,” Topham said.
In 2009, Topham negotiated a merger between the financially troubled IT&T and Agrocorp International to found Agrocorp International Canada. The company’s Singapore operation in Canada buys commodities from larger suppliers, such as Cargill Canada and Paterson Grain, while Agrocorp Canada buys directly from farmers.
Canada is the world’s largest exporter of lentils, but Topham identified a major gap in the speed with which they can be processed. With financing from Agrocorp International, Topham oversaw the construction of a new, $10 million, high-speed processing plant and elevator in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
It went into operation in December 2013, after one of the largest bumper crops in western Canadian history. Agrocorp also bought an elevator in Innisfail, Alberta, in 2013. Agrocorp Canada’s shipments of lentils and grain increased 75% over 2012, bringing in $33 million.
Agrocorp’s business also got a major boost when the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly came to an end in 2012, allowing farmers to sell directly to commodity traders.
“It was huge,” Topham said. “With the privatization and deregulation, we were given access to buy directly from growers and trade our own wheat.”
Agrocorp employs 25 people full-time in Canada and is on track to have revenue of $60 million in 2014.