From backstage at Bowie to floating an energy company
White's Cross man John Campion went from stage hand to an IPO
When John Campion left Cork in 1984 aged 18, he had £20 in his back pocket and a plane ticket to the US.
His circumstances are decidedly different now, as he makes his first real foray back to Ireland as the main sponsor of Motorsport Ireland's new Team Ireland Foundation.
In the three decades in between he worked for some of the biggest entertainment stars in the world, built up and took an international energy company public and developed an expensive habit for racing cars. In Dublin last week for the launch of the racing foundation, he told his story to the Sunday Independent in a distinctive US/Cork hybrid accent.
Campion got his start working on lighting for touring musicians. "My break was with David Bowie, working for him as an electrician," Campion said. "He was a very nice man, very genuine. I remember being in Rome in 1987 on his Glass Spider Tour aged 24, having dinner with him, wondering which knife to use. Who gets to do that?"
After David Bowie came Michael Jackson, "whose people were awfully concerned about lighting". The energy requirements of the Bad tour exceeded the capacity of most options available then. Campion saw a business opportunity in supplying power to events like concerts. He started his first business Showpower with partner Laurence Anderson, taking Jackson as their first client.
The idea was a success. Showpower supplied power to the summer and winter Olympics and the global concert tours of U2 and Madonna. They took it public in 1998 and sold it to General Electric in 2000. Campion left the following year; working in a hierarchical corporate environment did not particularly suit him, he said. "I wasn't the poster child for corporate America. It is a challenge to get me to shave." He and Anderson ended up at French company Alstom running its Power Rentals division, which offered temporary, rentable energy solutions.
"That got into trouble around 2003 and we bought the division around 2004," Campion said. The business became Florida-based APR Energy, "which we built up to sales of $500m a year."
Today APR Energy supplies power to third world countries and places affected by natural disasters. "We have supplied power all over the world - in the aftermath of the major Japanese earthquakes, for example."
The company has changed hands several times in the last decade but Campion retains a stake and is its executive chairman. In 2011 it was acquired by Horizon Acquisition Company, the investment firm of Pizza Express owner Hugh Osmond. Funds linked to George Soros and former US secretary of state Madeline Albright also took a stake. It was floated later that year in London. Then in 2015 it was privatised once again, by a consortium of investors including Prem Watsa's Fairfax Financial and Albright Capital Management.
While all of this developed, Campion was nursing a habit for fast cars. "You could say I'm a petrol head" he said. "I saw [Irish racing legend] Billy Coleman race in Killarney when I was 15 and caught the bug. He was a real inspiration."
He has built up an impressive collection of classic cars over the years at his home in Jacksonville. He wanted to buy the Lancia he once saw Coleman driving, but it had been crashed four times and was beyond repair. So he bought, renovated and shipped to the US the exact same 1975 Stratos Lancia model that Coleman had driven.
Now Campion is turning his sights back to Ireland. His mother passed away in January aged 94 and he wants to re-establish his relationship with his home country.
"This is really my first step back in Ireland. I feel more Irish now at 53 that I did at 33. I get the Irish newspapers and RTE on my iPad.
"I am interested in doing business here... I built a couple of power plants for ESB a few years ago."
By sponsoring Motorsport Ireland's new Team Ireland Foundation he will help to support talented young Irish drivers aiming to make it to international level. The foundation will help drivers in rallying, racing and karting.
"Ireland has this fantastic grassroots motor racing world but we are not nurturing it," said Campion. He also wants to push the message that not everybody needs to go to college, that there are other routes to success.
"Third-level education is not for everybody. There are a lot of ways to get where you want to go."
The secret to his success, he believes, has been "seeing opportunities and taking them. We all see opportunities but we don't all take them. And once you have the opportunity, you've got to leverage it.
"Plus, it has helped that everybody loves an Irishman in the USA."
Sunday Indo Business