Venture Visionary: Ray O'Connor, President and CEO, Topcon Positioning Systems

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An Irish-­American­-Japanese Success Story

An invitation to tour the Topcon factory in Japan in 2001 yielded a double pleasure: the exceptional hospitality of my hosts, and the distinct pleasure of spending time with Ray O’Connor. As we strolled the grounds of the elegant Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo, O’Connor began what would turn out to be a longrunning dialogue as he discussed his life and shared his vision of the future of our industry. On our subsequent visits with him in Pleasanton and Livermore, California, it became apparent that bit by bit, each prediction he had made, including those he spoke of in Tokyo, was coming true. Over the years, Topcon’s revenues have increased as the number of products and the types of technology it sells has grown by leaps and bounds. We recently visited O’Connor once again in his Livermore office to put the finishing touches on this article, and to share his unique story with our readers.

Born in 1962 in Roscrea, a small town in northern reaches of land-locked County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland, Ray O’Connor was the third child in a family of four boys and three girls. His father, a veterinary surgeon, worked for the government on issues of animal health and disease. His mother, an All-Ireland tennis player, met his father on the tennis courts. As with many large, young families, the early years of the O’Connor family were ones of compromise and hand-me-downs. When Ray was about four years old they moved north to the agricultural town of Naas in County Kildare, located about 20 miles southwest of Dublin, where Dr. O’Connor continued to work with the Department of Agriculture.

Ray spent his primary and secondary years at the Christian Brothers School in Naas. Boys and girls were segregated, and all wore uniforms. Both Dr. and Mrs. O’Connor played golf and tennis, so it was no surprise that sports was important to the children ­ including Gaelic football, rugby, and hurling. Ray traces his lifelong passion for golf back to the age of nine or ten. About a mile from Naas was a golf course, located in the small town of Sallins. As a boy he often made the two-mile round trip on foot, occasionally having to dodge a bull in one of the pastures he crossed. Christian Brothers School had a golf team, and one year, Naas won the national championship. O’Connor played on the winning team with his brother. O’Connor’s father passed away a few years ago, but his mother is still an avid golfer — the best in the family, according to O’Connor. From golf and the other sports, and from growing up in a sports-loving family, O’Connor learned competitiveness. Apart from his love of sports, he was always fascinated with widgets. He had always liked fixing things and was known in his family as the fixer-upper. At age 12, he held his first plumb bob as he helped with wallpapering in the family home.

Following secondary school, O’Connor attended the Bolton Street College of Technology in Dublin on a scholarship, studying architecture, civil engineering and surveying. He received a diploma in Quantity Surveying in 1982. (Quantity surveying is a profession that doesn’t exist in the United States, at least under that name. In the U.S., quantities are handled at design stage by a project manager ­ usually a civil engineer ­ and then at construction stage by an inspector.) While in school, O’Connor recalls learning on a Zeiss theodolite with chained distances.

The summer after he graduated, O’Connor obtained a summer employment visa to visit America. Along with three friends, he spent his first night at a youth hostel in New York City where they attended an orientation program. Shortly thereafter, the four of them rented a car and traveled to Virginia. The young Irishmen assumed that renting a car was like any other public transportation, where everyone has to have a ticket, and were surprised to learn that even though only one person rented the car, all four of them were allowed to ride in it! In the mean time, the four young men met another Irishman at William and Mary College who said he could get them jobs in Cincinnati.

On to Ohio they went. They did odd jobs in Cincinnati, mostly painting and construction. Aside from work, it was there that O’Connor met a friend of a friend, Nancy Sheehan. They fell in love and decided to marry. He flew to Ireland in April of 1983 to make plans to emigrate to the U.S. Upon his return he and Nancy were married and he began managing an apartment complex where he had worked as a painter. From there, he went to work at O’Rourke Construction as an estimator and site manager. Because he was laid off in the winter, he decided to take a sales job at ABS Contractor Supply. ABS handled everything, all the way up to medium construction supplies (not heavy equipment), including both rotating lasers for establishing a level line and pipe lasers for alignment. ABS was a distributor for AGL lasers, a growing laser company in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

O’Connor’s early fascination with mechanical gadgets was further whetted by laser technology and construction. ABS supplied the gear for a millionsquare-foot Procter & Gamble factory, and O’Connor became successful in sales. Overall, the U.S. economy wasn’t doing so well in 1984, but based on his sales success at ABS, O’Connor went to work for AGL as a regional sales manager. After spending nine months in training, he moved back to Cincinnati in charge of a nine-state territory. He was on the road almost constantly, and in those days, that meant driving, not flying.

Spectra Physics was number one in the laser market at the time, with sales that were nearly ten times that of AGL ($12 million versus $110 million). But O’Connor pressed on. Within two years, because he was product-oriented and enjoyed training and developing manuals, O’Connor increased AGL’s sales five-fold. Spectra, in need of a worldwide product manager, tried to hire him away three times, and finally, in 1987, at the age of 25, he made a "family choice" and accepted a position with them. The job lasted nine months, and at the beginning of 1988 he moved his family (now including two of his eventual three children) back to Little Rock as AGL’s international sales and marketing and product manager. He built AGL’s European business. Regardless of Little Rock being, as the old song goes, "a long way from Tipperary," O’Connor remarked that he and his family loved it there and enjoyed a strong church and community life. "It was a great place to raise a family," he says. As an indication of his faith, he revealed that the motto of the O’Connor family name is "O Dia Gach aon Cabhair" which means "from God every help."

With an eye for the big picture, O’Connor could see that, as in other manufacturing businesses, automation was ramping up in construction. Great strides were being made in the technologies that supported land development and agriculture. He could see that GPS was a disruptive technology, and watched as other major manufacturers such as Sokkia and Leica diversified into construction lasers. In 1993, with a certain degree of sadness, he decided to leave AGL to take a job with Topcon, drawn by the challenges that lay beyond lasers. O’Connor moved to Topcon’s headquarters in Paramus, New Jersey, a move that would change both his life and Topcon.

Topcon had started manufacturing low-end lasers in the mid-1980s, with Laser Alignment (later acquired by Leica) providing OEM equipment. O’Connor hit it off with Topcon’s American President, Yukinari "Bob" Iguchi, and although Topcon had great technology, O’Connor believed
the company could benefit from better marketing and packaging. O’Connor speaks highly of Iguchi, who he says has an uncanny knack, almost a sixth sense, for smelling opportunity. But O’Connor didn’t want to work solely in sales; he was confident he could make an impact in steering the development of future technology and products. He made a presentation about the laser and machine control market to 60 engineers, headed by Koji Suzuki, who later became president of Topcon. He told them, "We can stay at ten to twenty percent of what we’re selling on the survey equipment side, or we can equal the survey revenues." Although the Japanese are known to be conservative when it comes to listening to outsiders, O’Connor made his point when he showed them an aerial view of Spectra’s plant, with the parking lots filled with the cars of approximately 600 employees. Those jobs, he said, were created by lasers and machine control equipment alone.

In August 1994 he convinced Iguchi to purchase Agtek, a 40-person California company that was a pioneer in developing automatic machine control systems for motor graders and pavers. In December 1994, after a year and half in Paramus, O’Connor moved to California. By 1997 the prediction he had made to the Japanese engineers had come true: in the same time period sales of survey equipment had gone from $20 million to $40 million, but the company’s laser and machine control sales had skyrocketed from $300,000 to $40 million. In the first year after purchasing Agtek, its sales increased ten times.

O’Connor speaks highly of one of the Agtek founders, Rick Davidson, and credits Davidson with the invention of the sonic non-contact tracker that enabled stringless machine control, which led the way to stakeless construction. This was a quantum leap for road construction, both in the way roads are built and in increased efficiencies. Davidson is still a consultant with Topcon, 13 years after the acquisition.

O’Connor spoke about the imperative of bringing automation and 3D to the largest industry in the world, the seven trillion dollar construction market. He illustrated it by saying that some measuring tasks are still being done crudely, for example, underground pipes: "They can’t been seen. Where are they? Are they where the plans say they are?"

Of course there have been bumps in the road as leading companies have jockeyed for their positions in the global land development and surveying industry. After pursuing unsuccessful GPS arrangements with Ashtech, Allen Osborne and Trimble, Topcon purchased JPS. Trimble purchased Spectra, and with it, Geodimeter. Leica started an OEM arrangement with NovAtel. This has left three manufacturers ­ Topcon, Trimble and Leica ­ with the lion’s share of the GPS business.

Topcon’s acquisition of KEE Technologies of Australia in 2006 propelled the company into another massive global GNSS market ­ agriculture. The company had previously only been involved with agricultural land leveling control systems. The purchase of KEE, which has a leading precision application control system, has made the agri-market the company’s next frontier. Combined, the global agriculture and construction industries create the $7 trillion annual market for companies like Topcon.

We asked O’Connor if he would share with our readers the secrets of his success. He quickly replied that this business is his passion and his dream and that he lives it every day. He says it’s fun to invent something unique, and that Topcon is focused on developing new technology and faster spatial data handling. Topcon understands that essentially, surveyors measure x, y and z data, and that they are always looking to make things simpler. Topcon’s goal is to provide the best product, reliability and support at the best price. When I chatted with O’Connor in Tokyo, he commented that traditionally, Topcon had a policy of waiting until a new technology was proven, and then diving in with the intention of dominating the market. Now, he added, the "bleeding edge" for Topcon is taking what it has, then elevating it to the next generation. As an example, he described the HiPer GPS receiver as a revolutionary product, the first standalone base station that combined GPS and radio into one cable-less package.

Since beginning business in America in 1968, the highest position in the company was traditionally held by a Japanese. In 2001, O’Connor became the first non-Japanese to head the American operation. Since then, he has been put in charge of Europe and Australia. According to O’Connor, sales in Europe doubled in 18 months, and sales in Australia rose 50 percent.

O’Connor credits many people with Topcon’s success, among them Norio "Nick" Uchida, global president of Topcon’s positioning division, and Satoshi "Steve" Hirano, executive officer in charge of global planning. Both Uchida and Hirano became champions for O’Connor’s vision as they worked side-by-side with him in co-managing the early years of Topcon Laser Systems in California and convincing the top management in Japan to go with O’Connor’s ideas. O’Connor also speaks very highly of F. Ohtomo, Topcon’s head engineer and chief technology officer, and says that Ohtomo is "simply brilliant."

The feeling about O’Connor from the Japanese is mutual. Last year, he received the prestigious Business Performance Award from Toshiba–Topcon’s largest stockholder–the first non-Japanese in Toshiba’s 130-year history to receive this honor.

O’Connor also credits Topcon Positioning executives Jamie Williamson, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Eduardo Falcon, senior vice president of development operations, Joe Brabec, chief technology officer, Ewout Koepershoek, director of sales and marketing for Topcon Europe, and Richard Jackson, managing director of Topcon’s technology center in Australia, for "giving their life’s blood to the building of Topcon."

O’Connor agrees that having an excellent distribution network is paramount to the company’s success, and flatly states that he considers the dealers as partners. Trust is also very important, and can only be accomplished over time. As an example, he explained that the dealers were nervous when the survey side and the laser/machine control side merged, and it took patience and a straightforward and comprehensive communications plan to convince them that the move was positive. O’Connor also says that the dealers are more than just business partners, but friends as well. He added, "Our dealers are as important to Topcon as the products. Our corporate culture mandates that all of our employees are empathetic to the needs of the dealers and that, as partners with them, everybody benefits by working as a team."

O’Connor also considers the company’s customers as partners. "That’s easy to say," he says, "but not always easy to accomplish. Without Topcon’s loyal customer base, we wouldn’t be in business, and we never take that fact lightly. It’s ingrained in our company culture to make sure the customer is satisfied at every step in the company/ dealer/customer relationship."

I asked O’Connor why the price for GPS gear hasn’t fallen — after all, the gear consists of just boards and plastic. He says it’s because of the enormous costs for engineering and software development. Almost all of Topcon’s GNSS development takes place in its Moscow Technology Center. With five technology development centers scattered around the globe, one of O’Connor’s most important tasks is to see that efforts are not replicated. I asked about China, and O’Connor says it presents a real opportunity. Currently, Topcon has two manufacturing facilities in China and employs more than 1,500 people there.

In closing, O’Connor said, "Topcon’s success is the result of a vision and a plan, and its ability to identify disruptive technologies
." When he started in Paramus, the organization that is now Topcon Positioning had 30 employees; it now has more than 700. When the California operation started, it had 40 employees; it now has more than 360. Manufacturing is more automated than it was five years ago, and indeed, O’Connor brought the lean manufacturing technique from Japan to Livermore. The technique (which I wrote about in the Topcon Tokyo factory article in 2001) involves each worker standing in a u-shaped cubicle, surrounded by everything the employee needs to perform that step in the manufacturing process. The technique has resulted in dramatic increases in productivity.

While this article focuses on the biography of O’Connor, his contributions to our industry, and the success of Topcon, he is not one to bask in the spotlight. Success in business, he states, can be assured by having a vision and surrounding yourself with good people who believe in the business plan as much as you do. First and foremost, he said, it’s all about leadership. "I believe in convincing good people to join our team, giving them the overview of what we are dedicated to accomplishing, and giving them the freedom to make the decisions that will make them, and Topcon, successful."

A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed the difficulties of managing Japanese-owned companies, using O’Connor and Topcon as an example of success. Not only are there cultural differences, but Japanese and American styles of doing business are in many ways radically different. O’Connor had to demonstrate to the Japanese that he knew what he was talking about. Through patience, and by developing relationships and delivering on his promises, he succeeded in persuading one large Japanese corporation to change its traditional ways of doing business.

From a fascination with widgets and processes, to construction, to a vision for an industry, Ray O’Connor’s life thus far is one that we surely hope will inspire other readers of our magazine ­ especially those just starting out in their careers ­ to focus on their dreams and not give up, even when there appears to be a bull in the meadow. As an editor, I have followed Ray for many years and have been impressed by the breadth of his vision, and watching each successive part of that vision become reality. When he started, Topcon was basically a total station company. Today, its products encompass the entire range of surveying, construction and agriculture equipment, and the company is well-positioned to benefit on a global basis from the world’s largest economic engine, construction.

Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.

A 1.287Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE