Wild Geese: Ray O’Connor, Topcon, USA
Mapping out the success ofa surveying technology firm
Ray O’Connor: “The worst thing for me to do is to cut a good employee”
Ray O’Connor emigrated to the US in 1983 with $500 in his back pocket and an unwavering confidence that he would succeed, nothing more.
It was this belief, along with some inherent stubbornness – for which his school friends nicknamed him “hammer” – that took the Kildare man from being unemployed to being senior managing executive officer of Topcon, a billion dollar Japanese company specialising in surveying and positioning technology for the construction industry.
After meeting his future wife Nancy while on a J1 visa in 1982, Ray returned to Ireland for his sister’s wedding. However, his sole intention was to head back Stateside. At the time he had just graduated from DIT after studying construction and had “a very good job” in Ireland. But he gave it up.
“My parents didn’t appreciate that,” he reminisces with a smile, noting that the unemployment rate in the State back then was 17.5 per cent. “[They] did everything they could to stop me going over. They just thought I was stupid.”
However, he wasn’t dissuaded. He sold all his Waterford Crystal golfing trophies – some of which were picked up while playing alongside future Irish stars like Ronan Rafferty and Philip Walton – to get some cash and Nancy secured a fiancé petition for him to return.
After initially managing an apartment complex, Ray joined O’Rourke construction, where he worked as a site manager on a ring-road project around Cincinnati in Ohio. He recalls putting in long hours. “I’d get to work at probably 5:30 in the morning and I was probably getting home at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night. But I loved it because I was doing something that I wanted to do.”
Being let go one year later came as a shock. However, he persevered. One of the suppliers on the ring-road project offered him a job as a salesman. Initially, he hesitated and wondered what his parents would think. “The image back then was sales because you couldn’t get a job doing something else. Not the reality, but that was the feeling.”
One particular product the company sold caught his attention, a laser used to speed up the levelling process when pouring concrete.
“I’d never seen one before. It blew me away...these guys [were] really thinking about how to automate the process. How to speed it up and be more productive.”
Ray started to sell the product “exceptionally well” and, within a year the owner of the company manufacturing it – Automatic Grade Light (AGL) – hired him as a regional manager. Another year on, at the age of 23, he was made a product and marketing manager. “That was my entry into the business that I’m in today. I really understood the technology and I really understood how users used it.”
He stayed with AGL for nine years but for four of those he was struggling to convince the owner to change their strategy and protect themselves against new market entrants.
He said the company also ignored his view that new companies would enter their market. In 1992 at the world’s biggest construction trade show, Germany’s Bauma, a company called Topcon launched some new products that would compete with AGL.
“They wouldn’t even go and look at the products. I knew that if I didn’t move my future would be stunted.”
Several months later he joined Topcon, which had been looking for someone to develop markets for the new products. At the time he was the company’s first employee in the laser division.
In the intervening 20 years the business segment’s turnover has gone from $300,000 to about $500 million. Their products are now widely used on construction projects throughout the US and mainland Europe.
Overall, the company’s trajectory has been on an upward trend. However, when the 2008 financial crisis hit Topcon’s laser business contracted by 60 per cent in 45 days. Ray, by now the CEO of Topcon Positioning Systems, a global leader in precision management instruments, had to lay off 187 employees.
“The worst thing for me to do is to cut a good employee. I hate laying off somebody who’s good. You do everything you can to keep them.”
The experience led him to diversify Topcon to make sure that there were always some “growth areas” even if the core business suffers a downturn.
“Our business today is double what it was the year before [the] Lehman’s shock, which was our peak,” he says, adding that making new products is his favourite part of the job.
“I love looking at things and wondering ‘why the heck is it so complicated? and what could I do to solve that problem’?”
Although based in California, O’Connor flies all over the world seeking to further develop the company’s markets and technologies. His efforts have not gone unnoticed.
That he is the first ever senior executive at Topcon who is not Japanese is a testament to how the company appreciates him. The gratitude also extends to Topcon’s major shareholder Toshiba, who awarded him a certificate of appreciation on the company’s 130th birthday back in 2005.
Such certificates are usually given to engineers who invent revolutionary technologies. Only when Toshiba’s chairman spoke to him after receiving the award did Ray appreciate its prestigiousness.
“He said...‘[the company is] 130 years old we have never given a non-Japanese a letter of appreciation, you’re the first’,’” Ray recalls.
Not bad for a man who maintains he “wasn’t very good in school”.