Published February 19, 2002
Volume 10, Number 2

Ray O'Connor has a Vision of the Future of  Construction Industry — and He's Living it at Topcon

By Jay Hipps
Network Editor 

Everyone is familiar with the old Irish song, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." If it's a long way to County Tipperary, however, it's also a long way from there -- especially for Ray O'Connor, who was born in County Tipperary and grew up in County Kildare. On his journey, O'Connor has gone from Ireland to America, from Ohio to Arkansas, back to Europe, and finally to California -- a very long way from Tipperary indeed. 

His travels started when he moved from his hometown of Naas, a rural community known for raising thoroughbred horses, to Dublin so that he could attend college at Bolton Street School of Technology, which is associated with the University College Dublin. He studied quantity surveying, a profession similar to estimating, key to the construction process in Europe. After graduating, he and three friends decided that they would take advantage of the opportunity to get student visas and come to the U.S. for the summer before starting their careers in Ireland. 

"When you get a visa, you go through an orientation where they warn everybody, 'Don't meet some American girl and fall in love,'" he recalls. "I did what they warned you not to do." 

Ray O'ConnorUpon his return to Ireland, his family was not at all pleased to hear that he "was going to come to the United States, get married, and live the rest of my life there." Cupid won out, however, and O'Connor returned and married in 1983. 

There was a shock, though -- there are no quantity surveyors in the U.S. 

"It was interesting to find out that the field didn't exist. Construction is a much more entrepreneurial, live by the seat of your pants American style here." 

Enough of his education translated to his new culture that he was able to find work. The construction industry was very slow, however, so he took a position in sales with a contractors' supply house. 

"Back home in Ireland, if you were in sales that was because you couldn't get a real job, but of course in America that's where many careers are formed or started," he says. With some encouragement from a fellow Irish expatriate, he decided to take the position. 

It was there that he first encountered laser instruments, which were being used in the construction field for surveying or other measurements. 

"In Ireland, I had used surveying instruments and enjoyed those types of instruments -- I had a fascination with them. When I went to work for this company, I started to sell those products and did quite well at it." 

Well enough that he got the attention of the instruments' manufacturer, Automatic Grade Light (AGL) of Jacksonville, Arkansas. They hired him in 1984 and put him in charge of the North Central part of the U.S., which was traditionally a tough market for them because their two largest competitors were based in Ohio. 

"It was quite a large territory -- you could fit Ireland into it 10 times," he says. 

Sales took off. His technical knowledge of construction gave him insight into how the instruments could benefit from using the products and his hands-on approach meant that customers helped him come up with ideas for new products. Soon, he was helping AGL define a new generation of laser products. 

His next step up the ladder meant moving to Arkansas, which was not favored by his wife and their two children. He briefly went to work for a competitor in an attempt to avoid that fate but returned to AGL after eight months, taking the family to Little Rock in 1988. 

"If I had advice for anybody, I'd say that moving your wife and family may break a family but it can also bring everyone much closer together. For us, it was great, probably the best thing we ever did. Our relationship grew stronger and we became part of a great community in Little Rock." 

Now AGL's marketing and product manager, O'Connor continued to help define new products but also started to develop the European market. "I spent weeks at a time building a distribution channel. I've seen more of Europe living in America than when I grew up in Europe." 

During this time, two things became clear to O'Connor: where the industry was going and his life's work in it. 

"I look at construction as a manufacturing industry -- we manufacture roads, bridges, and buildings. It's custom manufacturing.

"If you were to walk into a modern manufacturing plant, the first thing you see is that processes are automated. The skillset that you depend on from human interaction has been removed so that you can increase productivity and improve the overall quality of the process. That's done by taking the measurement instruments and the design and connecting them together on a machine that carries out the work. You combine all of that together."

AGL was already making measurement instruments -- lasers that measured alignment and elevation. By combining those with surveying instruments and machine control equipment, along with technology like Global Positioning Systems, O'Connor had a revelation: It would be possible to automate the construction industry, the largest manufacturing industry on earth. 

"It got to the point where I had this passionate belief that this was going to happen. The picture was very clear in my mind but I couldn't get the people I was working with to buy into that vision."

Finally, in 1992, he accepted the fact that he would have to leave AGL in order to pursue his vision. Topcon, a Japanese company that made surveying equipment, was looking for someone "to help them into the laser, machine control business," so he interviewed with them. 

"I interviewed with Bob Iguchi, who was president of Topcon America and is now managing director of Topcon worldwide, and we had a good chemistry. I shared with him this vision of where I thought we could take the business and he bought into it, basically. I joined Topcon." 

In April, 1993, O'Connor became the first employee of Topcon Positioning Systems. They acquired a Livermore company called Advanced Grade Technology which provided the machine control portion of the process and worked with Topcon engineers in Tokyo to make a new generation of products that leapfrogged their competitors. 

"For our business, we grew rapidly -- 400 percent in seven years." 

O'Connor is pleased that his dream is coming to fruition but he's quick to share the credit. 

"There were people who saw the vision -- I wasn't the only one to see it. I was unique in that the work experience with the different companies allowed me to have a life experience that other people didn't have.

"What really matters is that you live the vision and that you're very successful making the business successful by living the vision. That's what's important, that's what we'll be measured by. We're not going to be measured by, 'They were the first guys to do it.' Whose ego are we going to satisfy with that? But if you make a successful business and you allow the people in the company to be successful and live meaningful lives and feel satisfied about what it is that they do, that for me is a big part of the enjoyment."


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