Liam Casey: The Irish farmer who tapped China’s growth

Liam Casey started with £10,000 working from the family farm importing electronic components to Ireland. Now he runs a $125m a year supply chain management company from China.

Liam Casey isn't your typical Irish farmer. The 44-year-old runs a $125m-a-year supply-chain management company from China's Shenzen province, the country's 24-hour-a-day industrial heartland. I ask him what he does when he's not working. "What do you mean when I'm not working? I'm working all the time!" It's a long way from the dairy farm he grew up on in West Cork.

After several years selling men's clothing, at 29 he went to California where a friend worked for a trading firm importing hardware from Taiwan and China, to sell to big American computer firms. Casey saw there was an "opportunity to bring this stuff into Ireland", to sell to multinationals such as HP and Dell. At the time, supply to such firms was dominated by distributors in Europe. "So I asked one of the Taiwanese guys working there, have you ever sold the product into Ireland? And he said to me Ireland? I've never heard of that company'. So I said Wow, great!'"

With just $10,000 to his name, Casey headed for an electronics trade show in Taiwan in 1995. "I had no money to buy the big stuff," he says, instead opting for samples of cables, microphones and speakers to bring back to Cork. Working from the family farm, he tracked down small distributors, offering to supply them with components they were short of from Chinese manufacturers. "Once you get the first order and deliver the service, they become dependent and they really like you." He hit sales of around $100,000 a year early on.

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But cash flow was less straightforward. "At one stage, I was in Taipei airport and I couldn't afford to pay the excess baggage fee. I ended up dumping my suits and bringing the samples back instead. So it used to get tight." But tough as it was, it was one such occasion that saw PCH expand into the multi-million dollar business it is today. In 1997, Casey had $100,000-worth of product sitting at a Shenzhen factory, ready to leave for Europe, when a paperwork mix up saw the bank refuse to pay the factory. Casey faced a large fine if the product wasn't delivered, as the factory would "have workers standing around doing nothing". "So I went to the guy in the factory and said I needed 60 days credit." No deal. A desperate Casey handed over his passport as collateral. "He put it in the safe and I had to stay in China for two months."

It was time well spent. "I travelled right round the Pearl River delta, to two or three factories a day, seven days a week. I began thinking I don't have to just ship to Ireland. I can ship to America and the whole world too." He moved into supply chain management, finding out what firms wanted and manufacturing it in China, rather than making the product then trying to find a market. It's proved lucrative: he expects revenues of over $200m in the year ahead.

He reckons China will go from strength to strength. It is "probably the most entrepreneurial place on the planet. On American TV you see talking heads going on about communist China they're doing a huge disservice to the US people. They don't know what's going to hit them in the next few years. If they don't start working with them, they'll suffer."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.