By thinking outside the square, a family-owned marine engineering company based at Port Macquarie in northern NSW is achieving outstanding success on the world stage.
The Birdon Group has come a long way since its humbling beginnings as a small dredging company working out of a leased building on the Hastings River nearly 40 years ago.
The company recently started work on a $US261 million ($A318 million) six-year contract to supply specialty craft to the US Army.
It was the culmination of four years of design, tender submission and prototype trials.
The winning tender is based on a design Birdon developed for a contract a decade ago to supply similar craft to the Australian army.
Birdon CFO Tammy Bugler says innovation and lateral thinking helped to get the company across the line.
“We are lateral thinkers and we encourage our team to look beyond the norm,” she says.
Tammy and her brother Jamie Bruce (Managing Director) now run the company, established by their father, Jim, in 1977.
The company slogan “Make It Happen” says it all.
“Dad originally started the company with the purchase of a single dredge, Ms Bugler recalls. “He used to extract sand from the Hastings River at Port Macquarie.”
He then expanded the company and moved into contract dredging, marine engineering, ship construction and repairs and maintenance. The rest, as they say, is history.
The company’s headquarters is now located on a 6ha site at Port Macquarie with operations in Sydney, Victoria, Queensland and the US. More recently, it opened a new sales office in the UK.
Birdon currently employs about 140 people – 90 in Australia and 50 in the US, based mainly at a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility at Denver, Colorado.
In Australia it operates four main divisions:
It is diversification combined with a highly skilled workforce that has contributed to the company’s great success, says Ms Bugler.
“Also, we have great customer relationships, she says. “We try to be responsive to our clients’ needs and do everything to ensure their projects are successfully achieved.
“That’s what sets us apart from our competitors.”
That same success formula helped Birdon land the lucrative US defence deal.
The tender process for US defence contracts is among the most competitive in the world.
To win the contract Birdon beat competition from a number of globally recognised defence contractors, including General Dynamics.
Over the next six years Birdon will supply as many as 374 Bridge Erection Boats (BEBs).
The boats are manufactured in the US, with support from Birdon’s Australian team.
Bridge erection boats are used primarily to provide propulsion and manoeuvring thrust while supporting temporary floating bridges when existing bridges have been destroyed during a military conflict.
To be eligible for the tender, Birdon had to have a US base.
That base came after Birdon purchased a group based in Arkansas, known as North American Marine Jet (NAMJet).
NAMJet’s technology proved pivotal to winning the tender.
The NAMJet marine propulsion system provides significantly more thrust than other water jets on the market, while maintaining high speeds.
Ms Bugler is confident this technology will open more doors for the company globally.
“Through NAMJet we are developing new military opportunities outside the BEB program. NAMJet was recently awarded a subcontract to repower the Marine Corps Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV).”
Ms Bugler says one of the biggest challenges the company (and most other SMEs) has faced is in finding attractive finance.
“Being a privately owned family company it is often difficult to secure finance, particularly for an overseas project,” she says.
Ms Bugler praised the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), Australia's export credit agency, for its support in securing the US contract.
“Efic has been fundamental to us achieving success, she says. “With our assets based in Australia, it was extremely difficult for us to get US banks on board, as we didn’t have any physical assets in the US.
“Our local bankers were extremely supportive, but we needed more security and that’s where Efic came in.
“When the US Government did its due diligence, they placed a lot of faith in the fact that Efic were behind us. That gave them confidence we could deliver on the project.”
Efic was also instrumental in securing a US dollar facility to protect the company against currency fluctuations.
“If we were working in Australian dollars we would now be losing nearly 30 percent (following recent falls against the US dollar),” Ms Bugler said.
So what does the future hold for Birdon?
“We want to maintain sustainable growth in Australia and the US. And we want to remain a family-owned company.
“Hopefully, with the establishment of our new UK office we can extend our international footprint.
“We will continue to focus on our strengths and respond to our customer’s needs to ensure we deliver the best possible product.”