Enigmatic CEO gets 26 hours out of working day
Why the founder of dynamic global electronics accessories company PCH is now looking to give a hand up to other entrepreneurial dreamers. By Mark Keenan
ON meeting him, you'd never think that Liam Casey, the founder/CEO of PCH International, is worth more than €100m -- that figure was reported two years ago when Mr Casey's outfit was being mooted for an Asian stock market flotation. His company's scorching expansion since then, means that today his 30pc share might even be worth closer to €200m.
The quiet-spoken China-based entrepreneur, whose world-beating electronics accessories business accounted for €500m worth of sales last year, has an unassuming way about him and a down-to-earth style that wouldn't see him out of place behind the counter of a credit union or as the local GAA coach.
He lives for his job and, the Corkman, who remains single, obviously still savours this transitable life between China, California and Cork where a nine-to-five day with air miles can be 26 hours long.
"I've been very lucky -- being based in China is like having a front-row seat at the changing of the world."
With headquarters based in Cork, manufacturing in China and selling largely to the USA, PCH International, the firm he founded in 1996, has been described in America as the "most important company you've never heard of".
The company, named after California's Pacific Coast Highway (it was close to where he once lived and worked), has doubled its number of employees from 1,300 to more than 3,000 since the summer, and it recently announced 2011 group revenue of €500m -- an increase of 72pc on the previous year, as well as a net profit of €17.6m, which is up 38pc on 2010.
Today, PCH makes and ships products for more than 20 household brands. Recent acquisitions included Dublin-based TNS Distribution and Lime Lab, a Californian product development company.
"We're doing all right, I suppose," Mr Casey says, smiling.
Like its CEO and founder, PCH is something of an enigma. For example, it's sometimes easier to describe what PCH doesn't do rather than what it does. It doesn't do product inception and sales/marketing. It does everything else in between.
If Apple (the only key PCH client to be revealed thus far) requires a new line in earphones for one of its products, it can email the design and spec to PCH.
The company then contracts the manufacturing of the product, designs the packaging, boxes it and ships it to where Apple wants it to be sold. PCH will also do the e-commerce.
If you want 500,000 more units for market this week, PCH can have the product with your supplier on the other side of the world within three days.
"Speed is what we're about. If our clients don't get their product in time for a launch today, it could knock billions off their share price tomorrow. They win or lose on the US high streets while we win or lose in China's back streets."
Yet PCH doesn't manufacture goods but, rather, farms out to a favoured quality-controlled cluster network of more than 100 factories in Shenzhen, a city that has gone from a population the size of Galway's in 1984, to the equivalent of Hungary's (14m) today.
Any sign of that much mooted flotation? Or have recent techie float foibles like Facebook muddied the waters? "We're not looking at a flotation right now, although we'd never rule it out altogether.
"We've managed to do well from venture capital investment. We had investments in our company in 2008 and again in 2010 (€30m) and VC seems to best suit our needs."
Lightning mobility is why his company owns just one factory (packaging) and puts such emphasis on assisting its clients in cleansing inventory ("the great evil of modern business").
It's also why PCH largely supplies accessory products today for consumer electronics that didn't exist five years ago. He's used to PCH surprising people and seems to mischievously enjoy it.
But it wasn't always plain sailing for Mr Casey.
In his earlier years, working for a trading company that was involved in both the retail and electronics business, he took the opportunity to attend a trade fair in Taipei.
"I realised the Chinese manufacturing potential that was there to be tapped into. I went to China with an open mind -- I didn't read the 'Lonely Planet Guide'."
He decided to locate himself there full time and, from a hotel in Shenzhen (he has only ever lived in hotel rooms since), he started visiting the factories which were springing up around China's model enterprise city.
Having set up PCH in 1996, he was near broke and found himself in danger of losing his first major contract -- microphones for Compaq in Scotland.
"I had no money to pay the factory in China and I spent two days there negotiating with them to release the shipment. In the end, I had to give them my passport as security before they'd do it."
On another occasion, heading to Cork airport en route to seal another vital deal, he discovered he had no petrol in his rental car to get there and no money to pay for it.
On this occasion, a little white lie saved his skin, the deal and PCH.
"I went into the car rental place and told the guy that the brakes on the car nearly killed me, so he gave me another car with a full tank of petrol and I got to the airport."
These days, Mr Casey's latest venture sees him looking for other entrepreneurial dreamers in Ireland who might think they have a good idea.
The inception of PCH's new 'Accelerator Programme' is an open invitation to budding entrepreneurs to get in touch with PCH and pitch their ideas 'Dragon's Den' style -- a gift in this loan-strapped environment, particularly given how well Mr Casey has fared so far in the den of the dragon since he first headed out to Shenzhen factories in the mid-1990s.
It also helps that he happens to know many of Silicon Valley's famous venture capitalists personally, including Jim Boettcher of Focus Ventures, who has already taken a chunk of PCH.
"We're talking to a number of Irish start-ups right now," Mr Casey confirms. "With our support they can take a good product idea and have it made, packaged and shipped.
"We have the means to provide a small entrepreneur with all processes that the big players enjoy to get their products to market. We can be the leveller. Go to our website and you'll find the application form there."