‘Factory fixer’ shares his insights on a truly global career

Liam Cassidy

Simon BourkeWexford People

When Liam Cassidy was sent to an Oral-B factory in Iowa city in 2000, he had but one instruction: prepare the plant for closure. His bosses had given up on this particular arm of the company and were sending Liam in to create a soft landing in advance of a closure announcement. However, Liam had other ideas. He said he would only accept the assignment if he could first attempt to salvage a plant which made close to one million toothbrushes a day but had found itself under threat due to competition from rival factories in China and Mexico.

Liam’s first job was to meet with union officials to explain his grand plan.

“We told them the plant could compete, but we had to change and change fast,” says Liam who is originally from Donegal but now resides in Wexford with wife Ann. “We didn’t sugar coat the competitive threat facing the plant’s roughly 750 production and staff employees. From day-one, I was saying the ideal number of people in the factory would be 450 to 500 and that’s how it turned out. Shedding people is never pretty. We were very, very honest and just said we need to do painful things but they are necessary to save the plant.”

Against all expectations Liam turned the Iowa factory around and was subsequently summoned back to Ireland where he took over operations at Oral-B nationally. And having already rescued one plant he was then charged with repeating the trick closer to home, in Carlow. Relying on the same principles he had used across the Atlantic Liam once more worked his magic, acquiring the nickname ‘The Factory Fixer’ in the process. And now, as he reflects on a career which has taken him all over the world, he has penned a book entitled Make Your Factory Great & Keep It That Way in which he shares both his insights and knowledge from the world of business and his experiences working in a role which has forced him into making some often quite difficult decisions.

And he credits a lot of his work ethos and attention to detail to his time in the army.

“I joined the army at 16, I had to lie about my age to get in. I was in the Mullingar regiment and stayed for three-and-a-half years, but I would have stayed longer if I could have spent more time abroad,” Liam says. “After that I went to London then and ended up working there. I found my way into manufacturing almost by accident; there was a walk-in interview in a factory and myself and a friend went in and we both got jobs there.

"The lessons I’d learned in the army would come to stand me in good stead but I didn’t realise that until I started working in the factory, I was taking over from a Scottish guy and his work station was a mess, it was dirty, it was bedlam, but in a few days I had the place polished and looking well; I would have learned that in the army, but also from my mother. In the army you learn about process, about systems and common sense. The foreman came in and saw it and was impressed and I ended going to a technical college while working there.”

Having quickly risen through the ranks he became managing director of Oral-B which led him to Iowa city. But how does one travel from Ireland to America, safe in the knowledge that you can single-handedly turn an ailing business around?

“By that stage I had learned how to fix factories and the supply chain, I had confidence in myself and knew what I was going to do when I went out there,” he says. “The leadership team was a problem, so some left, some stayed, and I replaced the ones who left, brought in consultants and applied the lean manufacturing method. It got great results, the workplace there had been frustrated with how things were going, it’s not normal to be like that. Any office, any business, needs to be putting people at the centre of things, make them a part of the process, fix the source of the frustration, this will lead to more productivity, a more content workforce. My advice to employers is that if you have a hostile work environment you don’t have a bright future.

"Workforces have the same needs all over the world, regardless of where they reside, they want to be respected, and to be acknowledged by having a voice that is listened and responded to. They want opportunity for education and development, and to be fairly remunerated so that they can provide security for their families and get great job satisfaction. The wonder is why so many organisations struggle to see that.”

Given his knowledge and experience of workplaces across the world Liam is well-placed to assess the current state of the Irish workforce. While he is upbeat about the number of jobs being created he believes one sector in particular is not creating enough bang for its buck.

“If you look around Ireland today there’s a job for everyone so the government is doing some things right for sure, our job creation plans are terrific,” he says. “Where we fall down is we put billions into our public services without any return. Their trade unions have supplanted management, they’re the ones who speak on their behalf, management are invisible, the union leaders are the ones on the television. It sounds like I’m saying they’re terrible, but they’re not, they’re doing their best in very difficult conditions, but their unions are speaking for them, they’re not getting a real voice.”