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Liam Casey Photo by: Nuala Purcell/Irish America Magazine

Global Irishman: Liam Casey’s borderless world

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Liam Casey Photo by: Nuala Purcell/Irish America Magazine

The ties between countries may be multiplying, but most places still have their own strengths and character. Casey smiled while recalling a story from one of his Irish engineers who went to China several years ago.

“One of the last billboards he saw on the way to Dublin airport was a beautiful lady in a Wonderbra. And he arrived in Shenzhen 24 hours later and the first billboard he saw was an industrial molding press, so he knew he was in the right place,” Casey chuckled.

Ironically, one of the local strengths Casey sees in China is its ability to think globally. In the U.S., he said, they talk about the American dream. In China, “it’s the global dream.”

Casey seems to embody both a strong appreciation of local details and the ability to think and work comfortably across time zones, currencies, systems, and borders – in short, local expertise combined with global perspective. While most of us are grounded in one culture and place, as most of humanity has always been, Casey is one of a small number who live a globalized life on a day-to-day basis. 

It dawned on me that many reporters have been looking at Casey through a narrow lens. The media often refer to him as “Mr. China,” either for “unlocking China’s secrets” or bringing the world’s work to its factories. But Casey’s stage is international and his very success as an immigrant from Ireland flows from working across all the boundaries and distances that have seemed so important for so long.

A more fitting alias for Liam Casey is “The Global Irishman.”

Ireland’s second act

In today’s world, such cross-border fluency is in demand wherever experts converge to ponder the future. Shortly before I met with Casey, he spoke at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, and the month before that, at the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh in Dublin. The Irish government convened the Farmleigh conference in September to explore ways to renew the Irish economy.

In the lead-up to the big recession, Ireland was simply on the wrong track, Casey told me. Our concern was all about “investment properties and holiday homes and all that . . . If you look at the history of Ireland, we’re not a landlord nation. I think the focus was wrong and now we have an opportunity to correct that.”

Casey agreed with many of the proposals that came out of Farmleigh, particularly ones which build on Ireland’s existing strengths, like culture and the arts. One panel recommended the country build a world-class center or university for the performing arts and Irish culture. Irish poets and musicians are indeed famous across the world. But considering the big downturn in more fundamental parts of the economy, I wondered how Ireland could translate things like art and culture into significant economic recovery. 

I asked Casey whether countries like China and India may, in fact, be eclipsing the Celtic Tiger, moving into many of the value-added, service sector roles in which Ireland has long had an advantage. Globalization brings huge challenges, he conceded, but “we’re writing the rules for globalization now.” Any nation “has great opportunity to create what’s next.” Of course, Casey is optimistic by nature, a trait which has allowed him to spot potential and seize on it before others. But his prescriptions are well-grounded. The Irish should look beyond Europe, he reflected. “I see huge opportunity if we can take what we do in Ireland and take it globally.”

Indeed, this is what Casey has already done with PCH, a strategy which has helped the private firm grow 30% this year, over revenues of about $115 million last year, as it employs 800 people worldwide. In a globalized world, he predicted, the solutions to what’s happening in Ireland “won’t come from the island, they’ll come from outside.” But they’ll require the initiative of Irish people. Whether the Celtic Tiger fades into history is “up to us,” Casey declared. It’s “our decision whether we let that happen or we don’t.”

 Man in the Nehru jacket

Jetting between continents, speaking at high-profile conferences, working “26-hour days” . . . I asked Liam Casey how all the hours and the travel affect his personal life. “What personal life?” he grinned. Weekends are rare for Casey. After meetings in California, he usually flies back to China on a Friday night, which puts him in Shenzhen late Sunday morning, with just half a day to recover. And home, for Casey, is the Shenzhen Four Points Sheraton. Why not live in a house or a flat? “The opportunities in our business are too big to miss,” he insisted, “and time is often our number one currency.”

By now you might be imagining a stressed, highly caffeinated executive. But Casey struck me as comfortable and highly personable. He came from his client meeting wearing not a suit but a denim shirt and Nehru jacket. And he flatly rejects the workaholic label. “It’s a cliché, but if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. . . . I love it, it’s great fun.” Here in the Silicon Valley, Casey works with “some of the best, most creative companies on the planet.” And on the other side of the globe in Shenzhen, which he described as the fastest changing city on the planet, Casey has had “front-row seats to the changing of the world . . . Take those and put them together, and I wouldn’t say it’s work.”

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