Last Friday, I listened to a Corkman brought up on a dairy farm in Donoughmore, out beyond Blarney. Aside from his fierce pride in being from Cork, this individual is also a strong role model for any boy or girl who harbours ambition to succeed in business.
In a society where wealth creation is too often sneered at, this man’s story is a valuable counterpoint to those who think begrudgery has a legitimate place in Irish life.
Liam Casey started his working career in the clothing business, selling suits from a shop in the Queen’s Old Castle building, on Grand Parade in Cork city. He moved from there into other retailing jobs, before spending time in the US.
It was there he developed an idea centred on China which has evolved into a leading supply-chain management business. That company was named PCH after his sojourn in America took him along the Pacific Coast Highway.
PCH now employs about 5,000 people with 10 regional offices across the globe. It provides hardware solutions for technology companies, ranging from the giants to start-ups. Its global HQ remains in Cork.
While PCH itself will undoubtedly be the subject of many business studies in the future, it was Mr Casey’s observations about Cork that were most illuminating at the Chamber of Commerce dinner last weekend.
Cork needs radical thoughts if it is to address the crushing levels of emigration and unemployment that continue to stalk its urban and rural communities. It is incumbent upon anyone with an iota of influence to conceive and execute ideas that can make the city and its county a richer environment.
Mr Casey has a couple of inspiring thoughts in that context. He argues that cities are developing as key economic touchstones around the world and in many situations are eclipsing the borders in which they exist. London, New York and Tokyo are obvious examples but many others have potent capacity to offer wealthy economic futures.
In that light, if the right ingredients are brought to bear, Cork has the potential to forge its own identity as a growing go-to destination.
Two key notions in Mr Casey’s address caught my attention. First, he correctly points out that very few cities, globally, have airports that are proximate to the city centre. Cork Airport is about 10 minutes from the city centre and has the infrastructure capable of handling a far greater volume of passengers that move through it today. It must play a key part in facilitating and supporting an economic boost to the area.
The second and more radical idea was to roof St Patrick’s Street. Mr Casey’s point is that St Patrick’s Street could be presented as a global all-weather retail attraction designed to appeal to the mushrooming internationally mobile retail consumer market, including those living in emerging economies.
It is an interesting juxtaposition that the PCH founder spoke in a city that recently won Chinese investment in both hotel and golf infrastructure.
Roofing St Patrick’s Street is an engineering and financial challenge that requires brain-power way above my pay grade. However, Mr Casey is a living example of someone who, with the right amount of guts, vision and determination can convert a dream into a reality that delivers unforeseen economic benefits.
Would it not be a tremendous concept to prove the naysayers wrong and transform the centre of Cork into a thriving world-class retail hub hooked up to first-class accommodation and tourism products linked in to the region by a much busier airport? Reality or fiction? Ask the man who went from selling suits to creating a $1bn company.
Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Strockbrokers. His views are personal.
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