Liam Casey has never read a book on China and does not speak Chinese. But the Irish entrepreneur has earned the nickname “Mr China” by creating a 5,000-employee company in Shenzhen whose customers include Apple and Beats Electronics. “There is no such thing as a ‘Mr China’ because nobody knows China,” says Mr Casey.

October 13, 2013 4:48 pm

Liam Casey: From County Cork to ‘Mr China’

By Demetri Sevastopulo

©Berton Chang

Express delivery: Liam Casey says his group can ship a Chinese product to ‘anywhere in the world in a couple of days’

Liam Casey has never read a book on China and does not speak Chinese. But the Irish entrepreneur has earned the nickname “Mr China” by creating a 5,000-employee company in Shenzhen whose customers include Apple and Beats Electronics. Sitting in his glass-walled office, the chief executive of PCH International laughs off the sobriquet given to him by the journalist James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine. “There is no such thing as a ‘Mr China’ because nobody knows China,” says Mr Casey.The 47-year-old fast-talking Irishman is keen to play down his knowledge of the world’s second-largest economy and describes living in Guangdong without speaking Chinese as “being in a silent movie for 17 years”. But he has managed better than most to navigate the web of factories in the southern Chinese province that are essential for the world’s big electronics companies.

Mr Casey founded PCH in 1996 as a one-employee sourcing company and has spent much of the past two decades living in hotels in the Pearl River Delta building the company. Today it develops accessories for smartphones and tablets, and manages “end-to-end” supply chains. In 2012 it had revenues of $815m, and became the largest employer in the Futian free-trade zone in Shenzhen.

When Mr Casey arrived 17 years ago in Shenzhen, the city where Deng Xiaoping launched China’s economic reforms, the population was less than 5m. Now it is more than 10m. “I don’t think you will find anywhere else in the world that has had to cope with growth at this pace. It has never happened in history,” he says. “The word for speed in China is sudu. The word for real speed isShenzhen sudu.”

He adds that the country is now competing with the west in ways that would astound many outsiders. “If you are telling [people] that China is all about copying and counterfeiting and low-cost cheap labour, then you are giving the wrong message,” he says. “The real message is that this is one hell of a competitive place on a global scale. You know what is really hard to compete with? The entrepreneurs … they are phenomenal.”

The Pearl River Delta is a long way from the dairy farm in Cork where Mr Casey was born. After school he entered the fashion trade, and worked in clothes shops in Dublin. When he was 29 he went to California – PCH is named after the Pacific Coast Highway – to “chill out” but returned after a year because he could not get a green card.

The CV

Born:1966 in Donoughmore, Ireland
Education: “The departures lounge at international airports has been the best education!”
Career: 1985 Alan Best Menswear 
1988
 Club Tricot 
1993
 Meadows & Byrne
1995 Travelling in California
1996 Established PCH International
Interests: Gadgets, start-ups, China trends
Reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow​ by Daniel Kahneman

With only $20,000 to his name, Mr Casey decided to set up the business to source computer components directly from Taiwan for the growing number of US manufacturers setting up in Ireland – cutting out traditional UK and European distributors in the process. “I had to find a customer and then I had to find a product that they were looking for,” says Mr Casey.

To find the product he flew to Taiwan to attend an electronics trade show he had heard about in California. After visiting every booth and numerous factories over the course of 10 days he was convinced he could help companies in Ireland procure components more quickly. “I came back to Ireland full of beans, really excited,” he says.

He then knocked on the doors of US manufacturers in Ireland until AST, a computer company, gave him a shot. It asked him to source desktop microphones that it was desperate to procure more quickly to avoid holding up shipments of $2,000 computers.

He worked through the night and found three possible vendors in Taiwan. But he was unsure which to select, particularly since he would have to pay in advance. “I was sitting at home in Ireland thinking: ‘How the hell am I going to do this?’ The only thing I could do was go and buy a ticket and come back to Taiwan.”

The gamble worked. He won the contract and went on to supply AST with computer cables too. “I went right to the source and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t the done thing,” he explains. “We actually were supplying AST with parts that were dual-sourced, from us and Samsung, but we were able to supply them faster than Samsung . . . We were scrappy and went to the factories.”

The volumes for AST became so large that his Taiwanese supplier said it had to move production to one of its plants in Dongguan. “I said: ‘Where is Dongguan?’ They said: ‘In China.’ So I said, ‘OK, can we go?’ ”

I don’t think you will find anywhere else in the world that has had to cope with growth at this pace. It has never happened

Mr Casey immediately flew to Hong Kong, crossed the border into China and drove to the sprawling city. He began to spend most of his time there, working out of offices in factories run by his suppliers. He says location has been key to PCH’s success. “Time is often the number one currency in our business,” he says, explaining that the factories from which he sources are less than three hours away. “We control that end-to-end experience. We take a product from our production line in China and we can ship it to a consumer anywhere in the world in a couple of days.”

One challenge in the early days was determining which factories made various components, so he created his own map of suppliers as he criss-crossed the Delta. “The map became really important,” he explains. “What we did back then was very complex, because nobody understood why you would want to buy product from China. [But] China as a country was just growing so fast . . . it could be very uncomfortable at times, because you were dealing with a huge amount of uncertainty.”

Mr Casey says it was like “dancing with the dragon”, as he recalls once seeing a factory attach high heels to a batch of running shoes.

PCH made its big breakthrough when it landed Apple as a customer. Mr Casey will not disclose details of his business with Apple but he says the first deal was agreed in 1999.

“We were contacted through a subcontractor of theirs to supply components that were being used on their iMac at the time. It evolved from there,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “They had a requirement for some products. We sourced them for the subcontractor and then eventually started working directly with Apple … to where it is today where they released their supplier list where we are one of seven that they list as final assembly companies.”

PCH soon started moving away from being a pure sourcing company. In 2003, after deciding that China was no longer just about low-cost, Mr Casey opened a packaging facility.

Next, he created a fulfilment centre. So, if someone in New York buys a product online from a PCH client, as soon as they click “buy” the order flashes on a screen in Shenzhen.

Within minutes, workers have packaged the product for transportation across the border to Hong Kong, from where it is flown to the US.

. . .

Reflecting how China has changed since Mr Casey arrived, PCH now also provides fulfilment services to Xiaomi, a young Chinese electronics company that sells more smartphones in the country than Apple.

“Chinese companies now want to play on the international stage. They are looking at partners that can help them to achieve how they can actually sell products worldwide,” he says.

As part of its evolution, PCH also develops products for big multinationals.

And it has also just launched Highway1, a programme to help entrepreneurs bring their inventions to market.

Mr Casey, who spends countless hours flying between Shenzhen, San Francisco and Cork, almost gives the impression that he is in competition with China for acting quickly. His words are punctuated only by the persistent beeps from his three iPhones.

But he struggles with one question: how does he relax? After a long pause, he says he uses his downtime to ponder his business.

Is he not working too hard?

“There is too much of an opportunity at the moment not to work hard.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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