Want to become an exporter? Expert offers 10 things you need to know

Acrow Bridge CEO Killeen says every deal/country is different, but here are 10 examples of best practices that never change

Acrow Bridge literally has been connecting people, communities and businesses since it was founded in 1951 in Parsippany.

CEO Bill Killeen callas Acrow a unique business because it manufactures modular steel prefabricated bridges, used to carry trucks, trains, people and utilities across chasms.

“By mixing and matching parts, we make up any length, any strength in any width of bridge,” he said.

Since 1994, the company has been doing it globally. In fact, it has been supplying bridges globally so well that its exports now make up at least 75% of the company’s approximately $80 million annual revenue.

The company, which first made its global footprint in Central and South America (where it has supplied thousands of bridges) is making a push to Europe (where it sees a huge demand for rental bridges) and Africa (where it just sees a huge demand).

Killeen proudly said its success has impacted culture — making working at Acrow more than a job for its approximately 200 employees.

“The Acrow team buys completely into our culture, which is we’re trying to support the social net of these countries,” he said.

Killeen said a new bridge could mean a new opportunity to farm — or get to a health clinic or a school.

“It’s something that the entire organization has bought into,” he said.

After nearly 30 years working overseas, you would think Acrow would have a manual on how to be a global exporter.

Not exactly.

Killeen said each country and each transaction is unique.

That being said, Killeen did have 10 pieces of advice for any company looking to go global.

Killeen, whose company was recently honored as Exporter of the Year by the New Jersey District Export Council at the first New Jersey International Trade Awards, told the audience these were items that need to be a high priority:

  1. Learn to listen: When you’re overseas, you do have to really listen to your client, listen to them carefully, understand what they’re trying to achieve, he said.
  2. Be culturally sensitive: You need to do your best to amalgamate or understand the market or the cultural standards that they work to — whether it be in business or personally, he said.
  3. Practice patience: Perseverance is an absolute requirement, because things move slowly overseas. Projects can take two to five years to develop, he said.
  4. Trust your instinct: If a deal doesn’t feel right, walk away from it, because there’s another deal around the corner just waiting for you.
  5. Get help from U.S. officials: Killeen noted Susan Widmer (director) and Brian Beams and Tricia McLain (senior international trade specialists) at the Northern New Jersey Export Assistance Center (a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce), as well as people at EXIM (Export-Import Bank). “They are, without a doubt, the superstars here,” he said. “I can absolutely say that some of the transactions we’ve been able to close, we would not have been able to do it without Commerce backing us up.”
  6. Get help from someone in-country where you are exporting: Having a country representative is extremely important, he said. “You want someone that’s based in the country; you don’t want to use someone that’s from the United States that happens to have roots in that country,” he said.
  7. Set high standards for your people: You want people who are ethical, respected and meet certain professional standards, Killeen said. Acrow is now requiring all of its country reps to be trade-certified. And make sure your people never deviate from your own ethics, he said. You don’t want to run afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, he said. That’s why Acrow is now ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certified for 37,001, which pertains to bribery.
  8. Set high standards for your product: You need to ensure that your product matches up to the markets you want to serve and have ISO certification, Killeen said. One of the first things Acrow did when it went global was have its manufacturing processes certified for quality against the ISO system. “We had the U.S. certifications for quality, and they’re great, but, once you go beyond the borders of the U.S., they’re not well-known,” he said.
  9. Set standards for sustainability: Killeen said Acrow already has calculated, with help of outsiders, what its carbon footprint is, corporate-wide. Numerous nations are at least starting to put the threat out there that, if you do not at least know what your carbon footprint is, you won’t be able to get projects in the future, he said. “This is something we’ve tried to be ahead of instead of behind,” he said.
  10. Make sure you get paid … up front: It’s important that you have a really good guarantee system on your payments when you’re overseas. Killeen said Acrow won’t ship bridges overseas unless it has guaranteed forms of payment — a letter of credit or wired money. The only groups Acrow will do open terms for are the United Nations, World Food Bank and the World Bank, which require open terms. “We know we’re going to be paid by those groups as long as we perform,” he said.