You’ve studied the goods and compared the prices, and your latest electronic desire hovers in your online shopping cart, awaiting that final command. You click “Purchase” and you’ve tipped the domino, sparking a chain reaction that will play out on a global scale.
Already, your order has appeared on a screen before nightshift workers on the other side of the world. A highly choreographed dance involving ever-changing flows of data, people, money, goods, and ideas brings the product to your doorstep, just two days later.
The choreographer of this global production is a former farmer from Cork whom you’ve probably never heard of. But he works behind the scenes to deliver the goods – quite literally – for some of the top makers of high-tech devices around today.
To do this he spans time zones, disregards borders, jets between continents, thinks spatially, works incessantly, and lives out of a Sheraton in Shenzhen, China. He’s an Irish-born man with the world as his stage.
I caught up with Liam Casey on a recent autumn afternoon in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. To get there, I rode part of the Pacific Coast Highway, a long stretch of seaside road that holds special significance for Casey.
He was in his late 20s, he explained, and had just spent ten years in the retail business, which he likened to a rat race. For the first time, he “had a chance to stand back and take a breather.” It was in Southern California just off the Pacific Coast Highway. “There was something about driving on it that just captured me.”
Casey also found the culture suited his personality well. “There’s a huge can-do attitude here in the U.S.,” he beams. “That’s one of the things I really liked – it’s very creative, very innovative.” It was soon after, while working for a Southern California trading company, that Casey got the idea for his next move. He asked a Taiwanese colleague who imported hardware from Asia whether he had ever sold his products to Ireland. His answer: “I’ve never heard of that company.” It lit a fire under Casey. He realized there had to be great opportunity in Ireland to bring goods into Europe.
Two years later he was thinking beyond merely importing products; he was learning what Western companies wanted to build and creating the connections to make it happen. By age 30, Casey had founded a company in Cork and named it PCH, after that Pacific Coast road.
Fast forward 14 years to the present. Casey meets with Silicon Valley clients – some of the top names in consumer electronics and personal computers – hops a plane back to Hong Kong, and makes the short jump to his base in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. In this Special Economic Zone, Casey can choose from hundreds of factories within a few miles to piece together all the aspects of engineering, manufacturing, retail packaging, order management – even product design – that Western companies can’t do as fast or efficiently. PCH handles well over a billion dollars worth of product in a year.
Crucial to this harried assembly line of high-volume high technology are the millions of rural migrants who flow to Shenzhen to work in its factories. While often arduous and repetitive, the work can earn them a much better living than they can squeeze from the countryside. In just 20 years, Shenzhen has grown from a small fishing village to a metropolis with twice the population of New York City.
Thanks to the recent flourishing of more interactive, Web-based applications, the process isn’t over when the products leave China on the early-morning Fed-Ex flight. From Shenzhen, Casey’s people can monitor the blogs where consumers are raving about – or ripping on – his clients’ products. The real-time feedback allows them to tweak the supply chain quickly, fixing any problems at a speed impossible before the advent of “Web 2.0” sites like blogs and wikis.
Globalization is not just hype or business-speak but reality in full swing.
Now, bringing a new product to stores – which often took companies years to do on their own – commonly takes just six months. Casey calls this “disruptive commerce.” This is the notion that these growing, interacting flows of information, people, concepts, and capital add up to more than just lower costs and faster trade. New ideas and products which, in the past, may have looked too risky to back can now leave the drawing boards and come to life.
Meanwhile, Casey’s clients can focus on conceptualizing the next hot handheld device. Casey is modest about the success he has enjoyed in his business, but I sensed a tiny blink of pride at his notion that he’s helping to shake up the order. While southern China and the U.S. are central to his enterprise, Casey sniffs out local strength wherever it lies, which is why the company’s headquarters are still in Cork. Ireland has well-known education and tax advantages, but Casey also likes it for its time zone. A California client can talk to customer service in Cork, where the sun is still up, instead of a bleary-eyed nightshift worker on the other side of the globe.