Engineering excellence, attention to detail, and delivering on time are three reasons why military tactical bridge builder WFEL is currently a trusted supplier to the US Department of Defense (DoD), according to WFEL’s FD Cliff Richards.
Back in 1996, the company was given £10m to design a prototype bridge that could be “launched” from a military vehicle with minimal manpower, span 40 metres and take as little time as possible to construct.
Efficiency, robustness and reliability firmly in mind, WFEL delivered their prototype, the Dry Support Bridge, in 1999. It takes eight individuals 90 minutes to deploy and can span a gap of 46 metres.
Constructed using aluminium rather than steel, the bridge was comparatively lightweight and extremely versatile. After extensive testing by the DoD, WFEL won the contract, potentially worth £500m over 15 years – not bad for a Stockport-based SME with 160 employees.
Creating a bridge is one thing, but delivering a batch of them to a very exacting government organisation in the US is another. WFEL’s suppliers are based in Europe, and because raw aluminium is a commodity – traded in dollars – there’s a lot of currency converting to be done.
Added to this is the problem of currency fluctuations. “Our contract requires big capital purchases and payments drawn out over a number of years,” Richards explains. “A big swing in exchange rates could lose us a lot of money”.
So the company agrees on fixed prices for its materials to hedge against what happens in currency or commodity markets – a process that requires extensive negotiation and persuasive powers.
Having solved this quandary, WFEL has to regularly negotiate the bureaucracy of dealing with a government institution. “We are their preferred supplier for military tactical bridges, but we have to bid again every five years – even though we aren’t competing with any one else.”
On this score, WFEL have already successfully bid for a second five-year contract, which they are more than half way through. A third term, which Richards is confident of winning, would make it 15 years and half a billion pounds in sales – an incredible achievement for a Brit-based SME.
“Tactical bridges are in growing demand,” says Richards. “The States is our biggest contract, but we have deals with 38 different defence forces around the world. They are used in wars, of course, but also for relief effort in disaster zones. We’re well placed to service this growth in future”.
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