Scots tech firm’s Texas acquisition signals further expansion

Jordan Mackellar, CEO of Hamilton-based Probe Test Solutions
Jordan Mackellar, CEO of Hamilton-based Probe Test Solutions

FOR the chief executive of Probe Test Solutions (PTSL), the Hamilton-based maker of automated test equipment (ATE) probe cards, the recent completion of the acquisition of a Texas-based manufacturer is the latest stage of a journey that started as an apprentice technician in East Kilbride and led to him setting up his own business in 2009.

Jordan Mackellar, speaking on yesterday’s Go Radio Business Show with Hunter & Haughey, revealed how the acquisition of Dallas-based ThinkMEMS, a provider of high-performance contactors and antennas for RF test applications, started in 2017 when he attended an industry conference and was introduced to the technology that is used, for example, in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and satellite communications systems.

“I thought it was phenomenal and at the bar later I asked the guy who was demonstrating it if it was something I could license,” recalled Mr Mackellar, who grew up in the village of Bonkle, near Wishaw. “He said there was no way he would license his key technology.

“Fast-forward a couple of years and we were looking at various types of PIN technology for our own probe cards and had been working with a company in Dallas who had made some samples for us. I flew over and at the table I could see what looked like the RF component.”

Mr Mackellar told Sir Tom Hunter and Lord Willie Haughey how he discovered that the Dallas firm supplied it to the company that he had spoken to at the conference and accounted for 8 per cent of his business.

“By the end of the meeting I had shook his hand to give him $10 million for the business and the deal was done with an option to give me three years during which he couldn’t sell the business to anyone else.”

A few months previously, Mr Mackellar had met Alex McCann, a Silicon Valley-based Scot who was the former COO at Linear Technology Corp and who had been on the executive leadership team at Dialog Semiconductor. “I asked him how to do the deal legally and how to go about raising funds,” he said, revealing that “Alex picked up on my passion to secure jobs for people” and helped guide the business towards a private equity investment. Mr McCann remains a mentor and now sits on the company’s board.

Last month, it was confirmed that the world leader in delivering advanced ATE test hardware solutions had secured a $30m investment from Paris-based asset management firm Tikehau Capital. The funding will be used to support PTSL's international expansion.

The deal is a far cry from Mr Mackellar’s days as an apprentice at Motorola, where he stayed for five years and benefited from that company’s training which involved time at college and university. From there, he moved to another company in East Kilbride.

“It was the tail end of the glory days of Silicon Glen when Scotland was a great hub for semiconductors,” he said. “We were coming to the end of that era – manufacturing in Asia was becoming attractive as it was low cost and there seemed to be a train to Asia that everyone was getting aboard. That left a very skilled workforce in Scotland with people out of work.”

Mr Mackellar “randomly” met business partner Gordon Stirling at a church meeting in 2009. “About eight weeks later we had formed a plan to start a business with a couple of thousand pounds each – we built our first probe card on the kitchen table.”

Probe Test Solutions is on track to become a $20m-a-year business, employs about 80 staff and is looking to relocate to Hamilton International Technology Park. The company has never borrowed any money and until recently had not taken any investment.