Acrow Connects Bridges Across The Globe
This episode of Export Nation, features Acrow Bridge, a company that designs and manufactures modular steel bridging solutions and has extensive export experience in multiple countries. We speak to Paul Sullivan, president of international business, to explore the company’s export journey and how they work with the U.S. Commercial Service.
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Company Information: Acrow, Parsipanny, NJ, www.acrow.com
International Office: U.S. Commercial Service Mozambique
Senior Commercial Officer: Tammy Murrietta - Tamarind.Murrietta@trade.gov
Title: Acrow Connects Bridges Across The Globe | Transcript Date: April 12, 2021 | Duration: 38:18
[00:00:02] Derrick Small: On this episode of Export Nation, we speak to Paul Sullivan, president of international business for Acrow Bridge, a company that designs and manufactures modular steel bridging solutions and has extensive export experience in multiple countries. Well, thank you so much for joining. We can get right into it. Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your company.
[00:00:26] Paul Sullivan: Thank you, Derrick. My name is Paul Sullivan. I’m the president of international business for Acrow Bridge, a company that specializes in the design, manufacture, and supply of prefabricated modular steel bridges.
Acrow is based in Parsippany, New Jersey. We have our primary manufacturing facility in Milton, Pennsylvania, as well as offices throughout the United States with our international office in New York City. We also have offices in Canada, the UK, Italy, Hong Kong, Malaysia, as well as South Africa. We’re quite spread about the globe, but we’re rooted right there in New Jersey.
[00:01:15] Derrick: Okay. Wonderful. Maybe let me know how you were introduced to the US Commercial Service.
[00:01:23] Paul: Well, it’s actually our CEO, Bill Killeen, who, many years ago, in the early ’90s, was hoping to take the company into a much more international bent and started to seek partners that would help Acrow develop partnerships in different markets that we were pursuing.
Our product, the prefabricated modular steel bridge, our Acrow 700XS Bridging System, is the kind of bridge that can be shipped in standard ocean freight containers. It’s easily manufactured in component parts and can be delivered in a very short timeframe to points all across the globe. It can be installed within days or weeks. This infrastructure asset will last many decades.
Therefore, it’s become a really key infrastructure asset in developing countries that are trying to advance their infrastructure in a way that support sustainable economic development. We knew that there was a wide market out there in dozens of countries for this bridge in a very powerful way, but we needed access. Really, working with the United States Government as a key partner is really focused on accessing markets and making sure that as we begin the process of establishing ourselves in those markets, we’ve considered a range of issues from route to market, developing local partnerships, local service providers that help us execute projects on the ground, and a variety of other features that the US Government supports through the commercial service.
[00:03:11] Derrick: Wow. You said your CEO, at one point, decided to look international. Do you know what the reason was?
[00:03:20] Paul: Well, the reason was and I think most Americans if they don’t know this, should know it. It’s a big wide world out there. It’s not confined to the United States market. What we have found, of course, it varies year-on-year, but our international work just over the last 15 years alone has allowed us to increase our revenue tenfold in many years and sometimes more than that.
It was the idea that as a manufacturer of a prefabricated modular steel product, you gain greater efficiencies from more work. More work requires more markets and to work in more markets, it becomes obviously a value proposition that a supplier and buyer agree upon. We think we have a product that is extremely useful as many countries begin to expand their investments in infrastructure, and looking for investments in infrastructure that are not only durable and of the highest quality in manufacturing and comprehensive service, but also, ensuring that this is a sustainable bridge infrastructure program for them.
These are the things that we’ve sought out. Again, it’s a combination of many things. You’re looking to how can you grow your business, how can you make your operations more efficient, and how can you look to markets previously unexplored. In the United States, certainly, we had a core competency many decades ago and we continue to, but opportunities were beckoning around the world. We knew that to do that you had to be present.
Derrick , as we’ve talked previously, Acrow is technically an SME, more emphasis on the M, out of that SME, but to be an SME, and to be present in 80 to a hundred markets at any given time, it’s very difficult to be consistently present, if you will, without that business development multiplier. You have to be present, even in your absence. I think, certainly, the tools offered by the Department of Commerce through the Commercial Service, have offered us that kind of market exploration without having to do the old traditional bricks and mortar in every single place that you go.
There are, of course, as I mentioned earlier, many other features to the service offerings of Department of Commerce and supporting US exporters, but we’re not just trying to flatter the audience here. The Department of Commerce is an indispensable partner to what we do. Almost every single project that we’ve done internationally has some link to what we call USG support, whether it be exclusively within the Department of Commerce or the Department of Commerce working in concert on an interagency level with State Department and other relevant agencies like Export-Import Bank of the United States, et cetera.
[00:06:39] Derrick: Perfect. Yes. Thank you. Before we go further, I do want to make sure our listeners— because I know you used the word “bridge.” I just want [chuckles] to make sure they understand that it’s a bridge, especially because you mentioned it can be shipped in, you said, freight cargoes. Could you explain that? If it gives some IP away, then don’t bother but I’m just— maybe you can leave our people with something. [chuckles]
[00:07:04] Paul: I think it’s good to think of this as for many of a certain age, and I certainly would consider myself of that, at that age. You might think of the old erector sets from back in the days that little kids would play with. These are prefabricated modular still bridges. To clarify, as I think you were, these are bridges people drive over and pedestrians walk over. What’s great about them is there’s pre-engineered designs for single lane, double lane, triple lane bridges with one or two pedestrian foot blocks, that can be designed to accommodate a wide range of loads, whether they be civilian, military, or otherwise.
We also work a lot with industries that have heavy vehicles, whether it be construction or otherwise. You have this pre-engineered product that essentially is guided by three core components, the longitudinal trust panels that are connected by high-strength pins, the lateral transoms, the floor beams, and then the deck units, and they’re all tied together and supported by pins, bolts, and braces.
All of these are modular, manufactured to really minute tolerances so that panels, beams, and deck units that we manufactured 10 years ago fit perfectly with things we’re manufacturing today and things that we might manufacture 10 years into the future and beyond. It gives a lot of result predictability for our users who want these bridges to have the same compatibility with future stock.
Now, this is important for a key element of our business just as a point of interest on emergency bridges because we’ve not only manufacture to specific projects, but we’re also continuing to, again, in a prefabricated way, manufacture these same components that we maintain in inventory.
Let’s say there’s an extreme flood, say, in Mozambique, where we just supplied 26 bridges with the help of the United States Embassy and the Commercial Service there. That’s drawn largely from our existing new stock. We continue to manufacture on a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week basis in our factory in Milton, Pennsylvania. We get the call there’s a hurricane or a cyclone or some kind of flood event that has washed out dozens of bridges or even just one bridge, we have that stock ready to be loaded into containers, shipped to site, and it goes together like a puzzle.
[00:09:57] Derrick: Perfect. Thank you [chuckles] for explaining that. That’s a perfect segue into your business. You mentioned Mozambique and maybe talk to us about how you do business with that country and then, any other countries you’re currently doing business with.
[00:10:14] Paul: Well, Mozambique is a perfect example of a country that was facing an extreme emergency. Within a month, Mozambique suffered significant damage resulting from Cyclones Kenneth and Idai in 2019. The African Development Bank stepped in to support the Government of Mozambique in arranging a tender for the immediate supply of bridges to rehabilitate some of the loss bridges as a result of those cyclones.
That was a tender process that obviously Acrow Bridge wanted to participate in. It was an international tender managed by Standard Tendering Rules to include a fair and transparent process.
To access that, we had been seeking opportunities in Mozambique, and we engaged the Commercial Service, working particularly with Tami Marietta, the fine Commercial Service officer operating out of Maputo, US Embassy, and developed partnerships locally to one, understand the appropriate ministry that was managing the tender as well as other opportunities in Mozambique, but particularly that ministry, the agency that was implementing the specific tender on a— and just understanding all of the details of how the procurement process worked as it was being supported by an international development agency, the African Development Bank.
It was key for us to understand the rules on the road, so to speak, and developing the kinds of partnerships that would give us better insight, so that we could assert our value proposition in the most effective way possible.
Now, that, of course, is uncovering opportunities. Then, you have the process itself. As that process moves into a more mature phase, the Embassy is generally and the Commercial Service is generally there to support us in reading the tea leaves of how the procurement process works. If there’s any support needed on certain issues, they’re there to provide it.
Then, of course, on the implementation phase when we were successful in winning the tender, the US Embassy, through the Commercial Service, was there to support any kind of coordination or collaboration between Acrow and the end-user to facilitate a successful implementation of the project.
This year, Acrow supplied 26 bridges in 90 days. Actually, we supplied the bridges in 75 days. We cleared the demand quite handily. It was quite a partnership. I think this is emblematic of the kinds of things that we do with US Embassy all the time, everything from gold key service to finding partners and potential customers to partner vetting exercises all the way to the kinds of advocacy that I mentioned earlier, that helps shepherd a company like ours through procurement processes in a fair and transparent manner.
[00:13:32] Derrick: Sounds good. Wow. You said 90 bridges, right? [laughs]
[00:13:36] Paul: No. No. No. Twenty-six bridges in 75 days.
[00:13:39] Derrick: Twenty-six bridges? Okay.
[00:13:40] Paul: However, I will mention—
[00:13:41] Derrick: That’s still a lot of bridges, though.
[00:13:43] Paul: It’s a lot of bridges, but I’ll also highlight another picture, a project where the US Government was essential, which this is information within the public domain. Acrow was successful in supplying 131 bridges to the Government of Zambia in partnership with the US Export-Import Bank of the United States.
That was a real inter-agency collaboration where, obviously, you have Export-Import Bank supporting the project. We had a major international financial institution supporting with the loan. All of this was managed on a bilateral basis with the US Embassy locally and Lusaka, as a combination of some steerage from the Department of Commerce with support on the ground in Lusaka with the State Department.
A lot goes into these projects. There are a lot of moving parts. I would suggest to other exporters, hoping to do projects internationally, there’s no greater friend than your embassies, than your Department of Commerce, and your State Department, which are all specifically prioritizing economic and commercial diplomacy.
[00:14:52] Derrick: Thank you. How much of the business is international?
[00:14:56] Paul: Well, of course, it varies year to year. Back in the ’90s, it certainly would have been on a typical year, less than 10% of our business. We do see now in certain years, it could be anywhere from 70% to 95% of our business. It depends on the projects that are coming through, but it’s a steady, I’d say, 60% to 80% of our core year-on-year business, which is a— it has transformed not only the size of our business, but the scope of our mission.
We’re quite proud of the work that we’ve done over the last 20 years in developing these international markets, but it was a strategic effort in partnership with the United States Government, specifically the Department of Commerce, and making sure that we had the access necessary to develop our value proposition in front of end-users.
[00:15:54] Derrick: Thank you. This is a lot of export experience that your company clearly has. Maybe you could talk to us about any hurdles or challenges you faced.
[00:16:08] Paul: There are many challenges that come. As I mentioned, our product is really well-designed in a variety of applications and advanced economies, as well as developing economies, but where we see the opportunity for transformative infrastructure growth that leads to sustainable economic development is in a lot of frontier and emerging markets.
These are countries that typically have underdeveloped infrastructure or undeveloped infrastructure in much of the country. We will pursue opportunities in these countries, in these markets, basically offering what we would call Comprehensive Bridge Development Programs, where we are offering a large quantity of bridging in a short period of time. An example, in Zambia, of course, there’s 131 bridges. In 2010, 2011, we supplied a hundred bridges to Ghana. We could talk about many projects of the past of that sort.
Not only are we delivering a large quantity of bridging in a short period of time anywhere between 6 to 12 months, but we’re also engaging upon a— engaging a significant skills development program. We work very closely with local engineers and technicians to train them in the assembly installation and maintenance of these important infrastructure assets. That’s a multi-year partnership that actually carries on into the decades as we support the ongoing use of these bridges.
Additionally, as we know, in many frontiers and emerging markets, government struggle with budgets. Organic budgetary processes might only offer one bridge this year or three bridges the next. That’s not going to transform their development agenda. What we try to do is, say, “Hey, if you could get these bridges now, let’s try to arrange international finance supported by USX and bank to develop this project now.” You can get 50, 100, 150 bridges immediately, and we’ll find financing that’s acceptable to the local host government.
Those bridge development programs with the bridges, the training, and the financing, we have found that that offers a really compelling value proposition for our partners in different markets. To do all of those things, you need other partners within the stakeholder universe, if you will. United States Government is instrumental in helping us develop relationships with those stakeholders and making sure that this is a win for everyone concerned.
[00:18:51] Derrick: Is your typical client/partner the government agencies in other countries?
[00:18:58] Paul: It’s a range and that’s a good question. As you may anticipate, infrastructure tends to be within the public domain. It’s usually governments that are arranging infrastructure investments. Often, there are obviously prime contractors and subcontractors who are engaged by the government to perform those activities. I would categorize our business into loosely three general baskets of public sector where it’s the Ministries of Public Works, Ministries of Transport, Departments of Feeder Roads, Departments of Rural Roads, anything associated with this, also militaries.
When one thinks of military, it’s not necessarily always military activity. Often, in many countries, the military is a primary emergency response agency as well. There’ll be involved in building bridges in the aftermath of a climate event of some sort. That is our public sector. I’d say that’s somewhere between 80% to 90% of our work internationally in a given year. We also work private sector. Sometimes, there are extractive industries that need access bridges or heavy construction that need access bridging as well.
Again, one of the principal characteristics of our product is that it can handle very heavy loads. For instance, in mining operations, we can design our pre-engineered bridges to have capabilities of up to 200 metric tons, far beyond what you would see in civilian road traffic.
The versatility of that bridge, its ability to handle heavy loads, its durability with service life of 75 plus years. These are all very compelling things that also attract a private sector audience. Then, also, there are multilateral aid agencies, as well as national aid agencies, anything from World Bank to, as I mentioned earlier, the African Development Bank to USAID.
These are agencies that are generally trying to assist with some level of infrastructure in certain contexts and bridge. Anytime you’re thinking about roads, at some point, there will likely be a bridge. We often work with the UN and World Bank-supported projects, as well as USAID from time to time.
[00:21:25] Derrick: Are there any key characteristics in those discussions that you see that sort of suggest that the partnership will be fruitful win-win for both sides?
[00:21:38] Paul: Well, when you say both sides, are you thinking clients or are you thinking more broadly with the USG relationship or just the entire stakeholder map, if you will?
[00:21:49] Derrick: The stakeholder map.
[00:21:52] Paul: Yes. Obviously, many folks have an interest in bridges. [chuckles] The government obviously wants bridging for economic and social reasons. Bridges support prosperity, whether it’s someone who needs access to education, hospital, or economic opportunity. Just even thinking of many countries that hope to develop their agricultural sector. It’s almost impossible to develop sustainable agribusiness without having reliable road and bridge networks.
We’ve operated in many markets where if our bridge was not there, that journey, that is a 20-mile journey turns into a 400-mile journey if that bridge is not present. You can imagine the economic disruption of not being able to cross that bridge site. That is written large across the economy across the market.
Those are the things that we’re trying to solve. We work very closely with, not only the agency, but also the local contractors who are actually building the substructure and the civil works and actually installing the bridge. We have our technicians on-site to train the local participants in the project. There’s quite a bit of skills development there.
Of course, making all of this hang together requires quite a diplomatic presence, folks who help the various stakeholders understand each other where that might not be the most natural fluency. I think that’s where the United States embassies around the world have been extremely effective in supporting, not just Acrow’s understanding of the market, but helping local stakeholders work very collaboratively with Acrow to make sure the project is a success.
There’s a lot that goes into it, but our feeling is when you walk in the door, having Uncle Sam at your shoulder is always a plus. That’s why it’s a key part of our strategy. As I mentioned, the whole project lifecycle from determining partners to arriving at project scope definition to understanding the procurement process, all the way through to the advocacy that allows project implementation to go through without an ordinant challenge. That’s what we depend on from USG.
[00:24:38] Derrick: Great. Yes. Dropping a lot of gems there. In terms of maybe what’s the most satisfying one? I know that’s a tough question for a company maybe of your size, but is there any exports that you’ve found particular satisfaction in, you or the company?
[00:24:58] Paul: Yes. I think it’s hard to pick one. It’s like, “Which child do you love more?” I don’t want to highlight one project necessarily above others. There’s a range of satisfactions. It could just be one bridge, but you see the immediate impact of what that bridge has on a community.
In Tanzania, in 2014, we worked on a three-bridge project in support of USAID’s project in Morogoro, which actually was supporting the rollout of a much more robust agricultural sector in Tanzania. We won the tender with USAID. Then, we’ve worked very closely with USAID and the US Embassy to then work with the local roads agency, tan roads.
Then, we were about 10 hours West of Dar es Salaam in a very remote area working through the training of the regional contractors who would be learning how to assemble and install the Acrow bridges.
Then, we had a very tight window to build these bridges. We started, as I mentioned in the classroom with the training, it was very collaborative, high-spirited occasion.
Then, we went out to the first site and we trained the team with a group of local workers who had never built a bridge before. In three days, we had the first bridge built, and then taking the lessons learned on the first bridge, bridges number two and three were built in a day a piece.
By the end of the week, we had three bridges that are still serving agricultural development in this rural part of Tanzania that helps goods get to market. We’re very proud of that.
We’re also proud of projects like the one we described in Zambia and Ghana where you’re delivering a high volume of bridging. Again, a hundred bridges in Ghana, 131 bridges in Zambia, where you have to arrange very complex, financing structure. It requires a lot of coordination among different agencies and international financial institutions, as well as the local partners.
In this case, it was the RDA, the Road Development Agency. Of course the Government of Zambia, in general, pulling all of that together requires a lot of partnership among really good-faith stakeholders. USG is a big help on that. When you see the bridges go in and you see lives transformed or emergencies mitigated, that’s highly satisfying.
I come to this career having been a corporate lawyer in my past and I have to say it has been deeply meaningful to work for a company that has this mission, which is to positively impact lives through the delivery of high-quality infrastructure in partnership with local stakeholders. To the extent that we’re living up to that mission, whether it’s a single bridge, a pair of bridges in a rural area, or whether it’s a massive nation brand financed by international players, there’s a range of satisfaction that come from that. We’re pleased.
[00:28:39] Derrick: Sounds good. Sounds good. Yes. Bridges is one of those things, the connecting. How much staff do you have that supports exporting?
[00:28:52] Paul: Yes. We have an international department that is group-wide. As I mentioned, we have these offices in the United States, Canada, the UK, Italy, Johannesburg. We also have an office in Latin America and, of course, Hong Kong and Malaysia, as I mentioned earlier. We have regional business development, team members who then work with a network of local partners.
No one knows a local, a specific market better than someone who lives and works day in and day out with the stakeholders we’re actually engaging with on a particular project. You do have to have your regional team members who are well-versed in the region and are able to travel and support those efforts of local representatives. Then, of course, we have our manufacturing facility in Milton, Pennsylvania, which has approximately 150 manufacturing jobs. Also, our activities support thousands of additional jobs in logistics, steel manufacturing, as well as galvanizing, and other manufacturing-type activities. I would say, first and foremost, however, success in international markets, when you consider your own staff, more than a specific skill set that one might say good at contracts or good at developing pricing information. It’s really a curious mindset. People tend to think doing international work requires some degree in international affairs.
What it really requires at its core is a group of people who are interested in the world. If you’re interested in the world and playing a part in whatever your mission might be, in our case, it happens to be bridge infrastructure and support of development objectives, you can’t get there if you don’t have interest in the folks that you’ll be working with.
In a commercial context, we’ll often talk about markets. That word tends to make us feel a little bit cold. Internally, what we try to do, especially in our hiring practices is to find folks who— evidence in their background, some level of intellectual curiosity, a hunger to learn, a bit of an adventurous spirit, and we’ve been successful in doing that.
I think if you want to excel at a particular sport, there are X number of players on the field. They all play a certain position, and you need to make sure that you’re hiring in a way that is going to either score those runs or touchdowns or whatever your sport might be, goals, et cetera.
That’s what we tend to think of and makeup. All of our international team members are folks who have not only traveled the world and have a keen expansive worldview, but it was actually taking that step farther back that the reason why they have an expansive worldview is just their intellectual curiosity, their empathy for others, their idea of service, and commitment to supporting this mission that we have, which is the development of infrastructure in a timely, cost-effective, high-quality manner throughout the world.
[00:32:40] Derrick: Sounds good. My last one for you. What are some pieces of advice that you would share with companies in regard to export?
[00:32:50] Paul: Well, I think exporting is essential. If you’re looking through the four corners of the United States and you’re a manufacturer or you’re an exporter of some sort, to think exclusively in your own market would be a mistake, in my view.
Now, I think, often, the psychological impediment is, well, the investment required to get up and get out into these markets and the time required to establish yourself, perhaps, particularly for companies that are not large enterprises, they may think that this is too hard to do. These challenges seem beyond our inherent expertise.
I think what I would suggest is as you develop your hiring practices for internal team members, make sure you’re drawing on the kinds of characteristics I mentioned earlier that intellectual curiosity, that sense of adventure, that commitment to service and mission, and connecting with people, which is a big part of what we do. I think you should avail yourself of the tools that are often misunderstood. Most people don’t instinctively think of the United States Government when they think of, “How can I grow my business?”
They would be missing out on an indispensable tool. As I’ve said, the partnership that we’ve had with the United States government has been indispensable to our growth, to our development of our mission, to the refinement of our value proposition. I think it’s getting particularly in that SME space, folks to understand there will be challenges, but they are much more manageable if you reach out to the tools and the relationships that are right there waiting for you.
I think Acrow is an example of a company that you could use the expression, “Punches above its weight.” We’re involved, as I mentioned, in over 80 countries at any given time. We have a project history of deliveries to more than 150 countries worldwide. I think the key is it starts with that first step. To take that first step, you’re going to need some partners. I think the first one that should be considered is how can the department of commerce, particularly Commercial Service help you?
A good way to get started is you may be thinking, “Well, I’m in Iowa or I’m in Georgia. I’m nowhere near DC. How would I even call the US Government?” Well, there’s US Export Assistance Centers all around the country. In fact, our primary resource is Brian Beams in the Northern New Jersey, what they call the USEAC center, the US Export Assistance Center. He helped shepherd us through connectivity with all of the different embassies and also through the advocacy process where we need it in Washington.
These tools are there. I can assure anyone, any of your listeners, that the folks who are picking up on the other end of the line are enthusiastic about supporting US exports. I think the US Government has positioned itself in a way to project that as really, the economic strategy, the 21st century, is helping American companies participate in a global economy in a meaningful way. That’s not just the Fortune 500 companies. It’s the SMEs as well. I would strongly advocate that SMEs, in particular, reach out to their local USEAC, and try to find how best to explore markets beyond US shores.
[00:36:28] Derrick: Thank you. That’s a solid advice. Lastly, maybe you could just tell people where they can reach you, or the company, and how they can get in contact with you.
[00:36:39] Paul: Again, my name is Paul Sullivan. I’m the president of international business for Acrow Bridge. Our website is acrow.com, which is A-C-R-O-W.com. You can contact us through that website. If it’s not me, it’ll be someone else who will reach out to you through the website portal. We’re happy to talk through some of these issues if someone’s interested in how to connect, particularly with USG resources.
[00:37:13] Derrick: This podcast is intended to provide information that may be of assistance to US companies. Statements made by Export Nation Podcast guests reflect the views and opinions of that individual. This podcast does not constitute an endorsement by the US Commercial Service of the individual, his or her employer, or affiliated entity. The specific information provided, resources mentioned, or products or services endorsed or offered by that individual and his or her employer or affiliated entity.
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