John Carlin: “Bet on service and servers if you want to retain technology in the Czech Republic”
Some of us were not even born 40 years ago when John Carlin joined the technology manufacturing industry. In Foxconn Global Services Division (FGSD) you can easily spot the tall, lean and outspoken Scot, usually towering over a partner in conversation with a smile on his face. His forthcoming approach reminds you of his lengthy track record in technology customer care. From the height of his professional experience John, now an EMEA Account Manager in charge of technology aftersales operations and customer care for strategic FGSD customers is able to cast a lucid look at the developments in technology that he saw evolving, but also receding and moving away from Scotland to cheaper destinations in Europe and overseas. And he has news for the Czech Republic: if you want to retain the technology giants here, bet on service support and servers plus excellence in delivering quality customer care, he says.
A time of room-wide computers
“I’ve been working in technology for my whole life. I left university to go into electronics when I was twenty. Since then I moved from being an engineer to technician-engineer, full service and support engineer and then into management – from account management into general business management,” he sums up his career path.
The first company that took John on board was Marconi Space and Defense Systems. “We were repairing and installing a computer system that was a meter on a meter and half and some 20 cm wide. Today there is more technology in your recorder than there was then in that computer,” he smiles. An army-based system, the computer was robust, resilient, yet bulky and with lots of separate components that made it hard to repair. Some other devices that John was operating, repairing and maintaining were computers with main frames the size of a whole room. “Some of our desktops today are more powerful than those computers were back then. Like everyone else Scotland went from something big that didn’t do very much, to very complicated small packages of technology. It’s a massive downsizing in terms of footprint, but with an increase in power and capacity,” he says.
From Silicon Valley to Silicon Glen
As technology advanced and the demand for computers grew, companies were confronted with the need to bring costs down. “Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) were typically all American. They realized they couldn’t build fast enough in the US, as the demand was exploding all over the world, so they went looking at where they could build. The first phase was coming to Europe. A lot of American companies came to the UK and mainly to Scotland thanks to the language and the good job done by the Scottish business community. The government invested heavily in attracting these OEMs. They used to call us the Silicon Glen after coming from Silicon Valley in California into Scotland. “The fact that Americans like golf and a bit of whiskey also helped,” John says with a grin. “But the skilled, reasonably educated labor force was there, so Scotland was a natural choice for these companies.”
John’s career moved forward on the wave of technology growth. From Marconi he went to Digital Equipment Corporation, which ended up being bought by HP and later by Compaq. “With Digital I moved from Component Repair on Computers into Field service, which meant that I was in a car driving around fixing computers across the UK. In the next ten years I moved up through the ranks from engineer through manager, P&L owner and technical support.”
After a decade John moved to a hard drive company called Conner Peripherals. “Their tag line was that they were the fastest growing company in the American Fortune 100 ever. They opened up a plant in Scotland to build Hard Disc Drives for the European market. We were shipping hard drives to all major OEMs – Compaq, Apple, Sun Microsystems and IBM. I helped in this dramatic growth – we were shipping over 1.5 million drives a month to those companies. I was hired to look after customer service and ended up being the Account Manager for all those OEMs. I built the team up to manage everything, so any problem with delivery or quality in the field, plus customer business reviews was managed by me.”
Recycling technology – a trend already valid 12 years ago
John was with Conner Peripherals for about seven years when Compaq offered him a new role. “I started working for them, so I turned from an account manager into the client. It was a very interesting role for me as EMEA Product Support Service Manager. Through the years I’ve seen a massive change in the Compaq volumes. We were shipping about 50 000 computers a month and it jumped to 75 000, 100 000 and up to 250 000 a month at some point, depending on the season. There were million of PCs being shipped from Scotland into Europe. As the PC boxes got smaller and Microsoft came along with an operating system that generated things that could be done on something of a size of a box, the need for computers exploded. It’s the combination of software and hardware that made the real difference,” John says, adding that he would have never left his role in Compaq if it weren’t for his former boss in Connor. “He had joined another hard drive company called MAXTOR, which was in the throes of coming back after a rough patch in its history. So my former boss was hired to manage the new growth. For that he needed a good team presence, so he called me to build the European customer support team and I went because of the people I knew were working there. That was a very exciting time.”
Leaving MAXTOR John discovered a whole new technology field: recycling services with a company called MIREC/SIMS Recycling Solutions. “One of my customers at that time was Sun Microsystems and for this customer we were doing European-wide recycling. We would repair the Workstation and boards if we could, but when it wasn’t possible, Sun’s requirement was we had to physically scrap it by cutting, deleting data on drives and crushing the mother boards. That was way ahead of the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive 12 years ago, but even then it was a massive topic.”
Saying good bye to an era – and making peace with the past
Few knew, at this time of growth, that the golden days of major OEMs in Scotland were closing to an end. “OEMs took their activities as far as they could in Scotland. Then, they started looking elsewhere and they moved east because it was cheaper. When you start breaking down the costs of making a computer, the overhead and labor cost is one of the biggest and you can take it down by moving overseas,” he says with a slight hint of regret.
Asked if the risk of a similar move is real for the Czech Republic as well, John reflects deeply. “A couple of years ago I would have thought that the boom in Eastern Europe is very short-lived. However, things look different. Whereas in Scotland we had all the OEMs, in Eastern Europe they moved to different countries: IBM moved to Hungary, Foxconn came to the Czech Republic, so they won’t compete against each other for workforce. I thought everything was heading to China quicker. I still think that some further parts of the business will go to China, but at least the service support and server support will remain in Europe. So I am here to share my experience with our Czech colleagues, because I think the challenge for Czechs is to show that we can continue to build here for a competitive price. But that’s getting harder and harder,” he says.
John believes that there will always be a need for service support and servers in the European marketplace. “Servers will be around longer than manufacturing in Scotland. Even though things are getting smaller, there is a cost level break point where you either decide to scrap or repair. With the number of products that are out there, there is always going to be a market for repair. It might not be the juiciest part of the business, but it has legs – the life warranty on servers is five years or more. Even if OEMs stopped manufacturing today, there is still a massive installed capacity that needs support for another period of time. So you gain this time when you can refocus. What we need is a mixture of opportunities, from the fast high-revenue ones to those in the middle where there is a guarantee of revenue, business and work for the teams. To me that’s the sweet spot and if we can get contracts on that, then I think we’re built well for the future.”
The future looks as green as the rainy hills of Scotland
Speaking of Foxconn, next year in May John will celebrate his tenth anniversary with FGSD. “It will definitely be beer for the team, for putting up with me for these ten years,” he laughs. John works remotely from Scotland. He spends an average of a week per month in the Czech Republic. Asked on some particular features of his homeland, he sticks with the traditional. “In Scotland there will be rain every day over the year regardless of the season. So you’ll see a very green, lush country. Depending how far you get away from the center of towns you would also see a beautiful country well worth spending some time hill-walking. But even just looking at the houses is really outstanding. Scotland is about 5.6 million of very friendly people. We have a lot of golf courses and, of course, a lot of whiskey. We have always been open to immigrants and people coming in and I think this will always be the case. It’s a country that I would certainly recommend to visit,” he concludes.