Ireland’s own Mr China

1 Dec 20113 Shares

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PCH International CEO Liam Casey has built a global technology empire that orchestrates the design and delivery of technology hardware for some of the best-known brands in the global computer business

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China-based Liam Casey has built up a global technology manufacturing empire that is helping to fuel the worldwide consumer electronics boom.

From his window in Shenzhen, China, Corkman Liam Casey marvels at the speed of economic development in China. Shenzhen in 1984 had a population of 80,000 people. Today it has reached 15m, he says.

FUTURE IS NOW: THERE ARE NO LOCAL, ONLY GLOBAL BUSINESSES

$400m -plus: 2010 annual revenues of Cork-headquartered global supply chain firm PCH International

$56m: Amount of venture capital PCH International has raised so far this year

Up to $21m: Amount PCH International paid to acquire Irish pan-European firm TNS Distribution in June

1,200: PCH International’s global workforce, including 80 in Cork

Known in technology circles as ‘Mr China’, Casey’s company PCH International is responsible for the design and production of many consumer electronic devices and appliances that define technology in 2011.

For competitive and contractual reasons he can’t name them, but it is an impressive catalogue of the who’s who in technology today.

PCH has revenues of $400m a year and masterminds the design, manufacture and distribution of hardware, from the initial online order to the delivery at the customer’s door anywhere in the world. The company employs 1,200 people worldwide, including 80 people in Cork, where the company is headquartered.

Founded in 1996 to supply components to computer manufacturers, PCH made the strategic decision to transition away from component supply to focus on global supply chain services to key industries like consumer tech, medical devices, telecoms and other emerging technology industries.

In February, PCH raised $26m from Triangle Peak Partners and Cross Creek Capital. It followed a previous funding round of $21m in 2008 from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Norwest Venture Partners and Focus Ventures.

In June, it emerged that two new investors, Temasek subsidiary Northbrook Investments and J. Christopher Burch, joined existing investors in raising a further $30m. The same month PCH acquired TNS Distribution, an Irish-based pan-European consumer electronics distributor, for up to $21m.

Liam Casey’s background

Casey himself has lived in Shenzhen for the past 16 years but spends a lot of his time in Silicon Valley and gets to drop by Cork every six weeks or so.

When I ask him about his origins in the technology space, he laughs: "You wouldn’t believe me, but I was actually in the retail business for 10 years before this. I helped set up Meadows & Byrne and I ended up running the Club Tricot line for Blarney Woolen Mills. My background is completely customer service and supply chain. While I was at Club Tricot, I bought all the materials in France and Germany and had the clothes made in Ireland and delivered to the retail stores. It was all about timing, you never wanted stock to run out in any of the stores but at the same time you never wanted too much inventory. Quality had to be perfect and it involved huge co-ordination."

It was while working in the US in 1995 that Casey noticed an opportunity in the technology business. He attended the Computex trade show in Taipei in 1996 and after 10 days PCH was in business producing computer headsets and desktop microphones for household computing brand names. "You could say I went from the fashion business to the technology business but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been in the customer services business."

Today, Casey’s business – which he terms a ‘cloud manufacturing business’ – co-ordinates the design, assembly and delivery of devices that range from tablet computers and e-readers to PCs and accessories without the product ever touching Irish shores. "Take out the branding, sales and marketing from a company and we would do everything else. It became very clear to us around 2003 that we couldn’t exist as a pure trading company but we could move up the value chain as a one-stop solution.

"You need to realise that today’s technology companies are brand owners. They’re not manufacturers."

In recent months, PCH launched a new division, PCH China Direct, which involves a 6,000 sq-foot facility in Shenzhen that enables global technology brands to sell customised goods directly in to the domestic Chinese economy. The facility is capable of producing more than 5m units per year.

What Ireland needs to do for solid future

Looking at Ireland’s opportunities, Casey believes there two important flows that Ireland needs to get on top of over the next 10 years if it wants to guarantee a thriving future.

"There’s the flow of people and the flow of data," he explains. "People – we have to get the right airports and the right airlines to come in from the right geographies, you’ve got to make it easy for people to get in and out of Ireland.

"Data – we have to get the best broadband pipes to connect to Ireland to get the best speeds, otherwise we are history. The opportunity is to turn data into intelligence and manage it. The future of business will be about managing communities. And Ireland could be a great location to turn data into intelligence and manage these global communities of buyers.

"Ireland needs to invest in its brands, and particularly in its selling skills, which need to be strengthened. Nothing happens unless you sell something – every penny spent on R&D is wasted unless you also create a brand and a channel to sell it into.

"Globalisation is a reality and countries will find themselves competing with everyone, everywhere for everything."

Casey says 90pc of PCH’s business is "foreign to foreign" in that most of the goods never pass through Ireland but instead the entire supply chain is "orchestrated" from Ireland.

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"We’re buying in a foreign country and we’re selling in a foreign country, the product never comes to Ireland. We make products that are made in China and sold into Europe or the US or made in Europe and sold into China. We control the entire supply chain from end to end."

As an Irishman in Shenzhen, Casey is conscious of many friends and acquaintances who have been badly affected by the economic downturn at home, particularly the Irish property bust, but in that he still sees hope. "We’ve taken a fall but we’re way ahead of where we were 15 or 20 years ago, but people don’t realise it because the fall was from such a height.

"Entangled in this is an optimism among entrepreneurs I have met at recent events like the Web Summit. There’s this huge can-do spirit that I can only term world-class positive."

Advice for Irish companies: go big – go global

His advice to Irish firms is to stop concentrating on domestic activities and become global businesses instead.

"All business today is global. There is no local business, it’s global. Our first purchase order in 1996 was international. We made a conscious decision to be international. We created our first domestic business recently and that’s domestic China, not domestic Ireland."

He says he knows Irish people have it in them to create global businesses. Citing his recent acquisition of TNS Distribution, he says he invested in two entrepreneurs, John McHugh and Ivan Eustace, who he believes have the vision and passion to execute internationally.

"They had the same culture that I recognised when I started PCH."

Casey cites Glen Dimplex as an inspiration. "That’s a company that’s building world-class brands all around the world. Roberts Radio is a brand they own, for example – that has a fantastic penetration in the US, Japan and China.

"I think there’s a fantastic opportunity for more companies to do similar things. But we have to build brands. The opportunity is for us to sell things. We don’t have to own anything to sell. Build the products but you don’t have to build them in Ireland. We’re considered a ‘cloud’ or ‘fabless’ manufacturer because we design and create finished products by co-ordination."

Casey feeds off the energy that is China’s raging economy.

"I spent the last 16 years in Shenzhen. I chose this lifestyle; the energy, the adrenalin rush I get from it is huge. It’s the sense of excitement and wonder of this place. The pace of change and progress – there’s nowhere else like it in the world."

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com