Sunday profile: Dirt-track genius

GENIUS: Bill Buckley.
GENIUS: Bill Buckley.

Without this bloke in the faded overalls, who runs a nondescript factory in an Auckland industrial estate, you wouldn't have an iPhone, iPod, LCD television or DVD player.

Bill Buckley, engineering genius, rather likes that you haven't heard of him. He dislikes the media, hates public attention, and has taken some persuasion to give this interview (his motive, unusual, will be revealed anon).

One such story, with a British motorsport magazine, began by recounting the length of time they had persuaded him to talk for: 33 minutes, 13 seconds. You can tell instantly if you're boring him: his voice drops, he trails off, his eyes flit and the next question may earn a grunted one-word answer.

Buckley Systems Ltd, which has made Bill Buckley a rather rich man, does no business in New Zealand. Most people wouldn't know it existed.

But in Silicon Valley, they know that Buckley machines work, and they are used to prepare 90 per cent of the world's silicon chips, the key component of almost every piece of modern technology on the planet.

FIRST THE science bit. Buckley Systems makes machines containing powerful magnets, which fire lasers at silicon wafers (which don't conduct electricity) to turn them into semi-conductive computer chips – an extremely precise process calculated to within a millionth of a centimetre.

Buckley Systems is also part of an emerging market for new, non-invasive cancer treatments, particularly proton therapy, where a laser beam is fired through the skin to attack tumours.

This is a very paraphrased account of a very complex process, and in trying to explain the work undertaken in his cavernous factory full of huge machines, Buckley eventually reaches for a suitable analogy: "If you compare it to a motorcar, we make the engine, the gearbox and the diff, but not the carburettor, wheels, body and steering wheel. We do the parts that actually make the car go."

Buckley Systems was established in 1986, but not until last month did Buckley reluctantly pull on the penguin suit and gain recognition as New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year. In February, he goes to Monte Carlo with a chance to win the world version. I point out that he must have known this would attract attention, but, he says, he didn't do it to drum up business, only to nudge the cause of his lifelong passion, speedway racing.

Buckley is also the promoter at the Western Springs speedway track in Auckland, and because the council backed the awards, it seems he figured if he won, it would give him some heft when it comes to persuading them to renew his promoter's licence when it expires in 2014.

Did it work?

"I think a little bit," he says. "But they are still shy of me, the pricks."

He finds the council a cumbersome, irritating beast, perpetually thwarting his motorsport ambitions by limiting his event days (to a maximum of 26 a year). "I don't know what's going to happen after 2014.

"There is so much red tape and bullshit You can't pin anyone down there. I would've had 10 or 15 people I had to report into at the council since I've been there. They all think they know what's going on down there, but they've never been to speedway. They haven't a clue what it's about."

On one website, a contributor says his biggest impression of Buckley is that he "isn't used to people saying no to him".

At Buckley Systems, he's accustomed to moving swiftly. His chief financial officer, Steve Howe, says Buckley is an expert at spotting new markets. Recently, he slept in his office while he rushed a new magnet to the Japanese market inside six weeks.

"He can react quite quickly, to the frustration of a lot of people, in some ways, because he can interrupt your production flow and pull all the resource to work 24/7 to get something to market way faster than anyone else.

"He just does it. He doesn't have to fill in a form and request this or that, like in a corporate. He just does it."

Buckley is an awkward bugger, typified by his $1.5 million investment into funding a chair at Auckland University to research global warming, principally because: "I just don't like being told bullshit I want to find out for myself. I would rather believe a scientist than a greenie that just loves hugging trees."

He has also sunk another seven-figure sum into securing a round of the 2013 motorbike speedway world championships, a big deal in Europe where it draws huge crowds, but which has garnered minimal attention here, in keeping with the strange absence of media coverage for a sport which no longer attracts the big attendances of its heyday, but still draws well over 10,000 spectators to a regular meet. "We don't get any help from the press, we don't get any help from government, we don't get any help from council, we just get shit on all the time," he says. Giving this interview is to ensure it gets a mention.

Buckley, incidentally, is trying to secure council funding for the event, on which he at least hopes to break even. "It would be nice to make a little bit, though," he says.

"Just to keep the missus happy. She hates to see the money go down there."

His wife, he says, attends only infrequently. Although speedway was at a low ebb when he took over a decade ago, he says he cops abuse from the punters. "You can never keep people happy, though. There might only be 5 per cent of guys who rubbish you, but they seem to be 95 per cent. It's the same here – only about 5 per cent of the guys here are trying to screw me, cheat on me, pinch money from me, not work, but the rest of them are pretty good and you have got to keep telling yourself when you are in business, that the majority are not the whingers; they are the minority."

Despite that, every race day at Western Springs, he turns up, in his overalls, to prepare the track himself. He doesn't trust anyone else to do the job, an art he learned many years ago on his mother's north Waikato farm, where his stepfather, champion midget car driver Doug Mullins, had his own track. By 15, Buckley was riding motorbikes and in his 20s, he won three national sidecar championships.

Those overalls, name embroidered on pocket, and the accompanying battered black work boots, one of which is peeling badly, are not for show. Buckley was in the same attire the last time I spoke to him, and it's not entirely clear he remembers he was giving an interview today; he wasn't answering his phone so it took a ring-around of his key lieutenants until he was traced.

He works long, long hours – at times 34 hours straight. He admits to dropping into work on Sundays and spends Saturdays at the track; what little leisure time he has left involves the youngest of his seven children from two marriages, eight-year-old Travis, who plays soccer, basketball, tennis, flipperball, piano, guitar, flute and sings in the choir at King's Prep.

Rarely is Buckley actually in his office. Usually, he's driving: either that grader, flattening out the Western Springs dirt, or slowly around the factory floor in a forklift. "I say `what do you do up there', and he says it gives him time to think," explains Howe.

"He's always thinking. Maybe it's relaxing. I don't know, I don't drive a forktruck."

Lewis Dawson, general manager of his speedway operation, says excitedly: "Einstein came up with the theory. Bill Buckley can put it into practice. Not many people can take the thesis and put it into reality. It takes an engineering great to do it."

And yet Buckley has no formal qualifications. He could be the last such entrepreneur in such a highly technical discipline without them, and Howe suggests he's "pretty inspirational; that you don't have to be a qualified nuclear physicist. Bill values doers more than thinkers". Ironically, the pair of them are lunching with a nuclear physicist after our interview.

THIS WORK ethic was forged early. Buckley would fall asleep at his desk at Te Kauwhata District school after rising to milk the cows on his mother's farm for "live and keep", then cycling six miles to school. He would put in 40 hours on the farm, earning one shilling and sixpence an hour for his labour. School ended abruptly when he was 16. The Buckley home was so rural that the post arrived only once a week, and a letter arrived on May 2, offering him an apprenticeship with Auckland shipbuilders Masons, starting on May 1. He rode his bike north that very day, enticed because he wanted to build "big things" and ships were as big as he could imagine.

From there, he worked his way through a series of manufacturing and engineering jobs until he reached machine-tools company Hurst Precision.

Buckley wanted to crack the United States-dominated computer chip market, so left to form Buckley Engineering, which he left after his business partner also tried to dissuade him from pursuing computer chips over simpler engineering jobs, and so, in 1986, he formed Buckley Systems.

"I thought it would go," he says. "I know a lot of other people didn't. He [his partner] didn't think it would. My father didn't think it would, a couple of my customers didn't think it would work. A couple of guys who worked for me didn't think it would work and my accountant didn't think it would work."

Neither, after agreeing to finance him, did the BNZ, but he took the paperwork to ANZ and secured its backing. He began with six guys. "I did everything from sweeping the floor, to paying the wages to working the machines." He says for several years he would work 12-hour shifts, competing with his first-ever apprentice, Glenn Taylor, who worked the opposing shift, to see who could complete the most work.

What helped Buckley Systems, he says, was the 1987 stock-market crash, which forced US firms to focus on price and turn away from expensive local companies. The New Zealand dollar was low and Buckley could offer the package cheaply. It gave him early market dominance that has proved near unshakeable.

Now, he says, it's reputation and reliability that ensures the work: when a silicon wafer costs $250,000 and a faulty machine could ruin 10 of them before it's discovered, clients want reliability. "A few guys have had little dabs at us, but it has finished up biting them. But there is always someone buzzing around thinking they can do better."

Along the way, as the company expanded from six staff to 270, including four children, four nephews and nieces and a sister-in-law, Buckley has also dabbled in yachting, building the first real supermaxi yacht, Maximus, to win line honours in the 2005 Fastnet Atlantic race (and subsequently having a couple of abortive attempts at the Sydney-Hobart yacht race).

He's sponsoring a yacht which is presently midway through the Indian Ocean in a two-handed race, but, of course, the bloody media are ignoring that too. He built his own midget car. He invented a new type of 500cc motorbike, which looked like a winner until organisers changed the engine rules.

The bike was actually a way of breaking into the closed Japanese market, and by the time he had finished it, the Japanese were already offering him contracts.

However, he says, it has not always been an entirely straightforward tale of success: in 2009, for example, Buckley Systems didn't receive an order all year and he had to lay off staff.

The advent of the iPhone relaunched the order book, but that frustration at the chip industry's vagaries, pushed him to diversify into medical research.

He is confident that they have, as usual, arrived at the right time to dominate.

While Japan has become an expanding market, the majority of Buckley's work comes from the US. He maintains a small Boston office to nurture his American clients and ensure that he doesn't have to travel extensively, but has resolutely refused to shift his operations away from New Zealand.

There are, he reckons, advantages to being here: tight relationships with companies, such as his steel supplier, Bluescope (they use 500 tonnes a month), the discipline imposed by distance of ensuring goods are perfect the first time they leave the factory, low staff turnover because he's not competing with the aeroplane and aeroscape industries for staff, who stay because "we are building the trickiest, neatest looking stuff you can think of in New Zealand now".

But, of course, the reason BSL remains in modest Mt Wellington is because Bill Buckley has no desire to leave.

"I've got no ambition to go somewhere else," he smiles.

"I think people who move around are just unhappy buggers anyway, aren't they?

"You can usually make your home country good enough for you."

Television New Zealand is wrangling with Buckley to film an extended piece for its magazine show, Sunday. It seems likely it will be the last proper interview he does for a while, explains Dawson, before he returns, happily, to the shadows.

Sunday Star Times