U.S. bridge-building firm opens office in Prague to be closer to work in Israel, but over time, role of European hub expected to increase.
By Richard Massey
There are certainly many reasons why a U.S. engineering firm would decide to open an international office. Not too many of them, however, would set down roots in the enchanting City of a Thousand Spires – Prague, Czech Republic.
But that’s what FINLEY Engineering Group (#4 Best Firm Civil for 2015), did earlier this year when the firm, an award-winning bridge builder, fittingly hung its shingle in Prague’s New Town, not too far from one of the most famous spans in the world, Charles Bridge.
From its outpost in Prague, FINLEY looks to expand into a market where it’s been active for 20 years – the Middle East. The move makes plenty of sense. From Prague, it’s only a 4.5-hour flight to Tel Aviv, whereas it takes nearly 20 hours to fly there from Tallahassee, Florida, where FINLEY is based.
But why Prague and not Vienna, Budapest, or Warsaw? After a few years of consideration, it all came down to talented personnel, the cornerstone of any successful firm. Craig Finley, the firm’s founder and managing principal, explains.
“We had a very good engineer working with us, Jindrich Potucek, who is Czech,” Finley says. “He was starting a family and thinking about moving back home. He had been with us for about five years and we decided that he was ready to lead FINLEY’s first international office. From our due diligences, we are certain that the Czech engineers are very well educated, the commercial climate favorable, and the cost of structure was very favorable. Prague was a win.”
With a location identified and a trusted engineer in a leadership position, FINLEY had to get down to the nuts and bolts of the move – legal, accounting, and permitting – and ensure that the company’s culture was instilled in the new location. FINLEY went with a “same building-different floors” approach, and is now up to four engineers and looking to add three more, plus support staff, before the summer is over.
As an American firm, FINLEY arrives in the international market with pros and cons. Competing firms, due to a variety of reasons, can charge lower rates. But Finley, a bridge builder with a long track record, has an established brand, even outside the United States.
“The International markets are tough and more cost competitive than the USA,” Finley says. “Salary rates are typically lower, along with overheads and operating margin. We’ve found that FINLEY’s reputation and special expertise has been well received and we have not had to compete solely on a ‘price only’ basis.”
While the United States is recognized as perhaps the most diverse country in the world, due to immigration policies, it’s difficult to bring top engineers into the United States from abroad, Finley says. Meanwhile, the firm is not seeing the same restraints in the Czech Republic, giving the Prague office the chance to be truly international. A deep Rolodex doesn’t hurt, either.
“So far, FINLEY has not had any difficulties in finding great people to join us,” Finley says. “For the most part, they have been known to us or came via a contact from someone we knew. FINLEY’s social media presence seems to be keeping us in front of potential new hires, too.”
Abroad, FINLEY’s bread and butter is bridge construction in Israel, where FINLEY enjoys long-term relationships with important construction companies like Danya Cebus. The two have joined forces on multiple projects, including the Road 1 Motza Bridge design-build in Jerusalem.
The $170-million project, begun in 2013, is still under construction. On the main road into Jerusalem, it is a project that must take into account religious archeological sites. The precast segmental bridge, three lanes in each direction, is about 800 meters long.
In the early stages of Prague, FINLEY will continue to compete for jobs like the Motza Bridge and the Benyamani Bridge, a 417-meter span in Israel. But over time, FINLEY looks to diversify.
“Initially, we’re going to focus on FINLEY’s client base outside of the Czech Republic,” Finley says. “But we have clients that have interest in the local markets and we see opportunities working with them in Europe and, hopefully, the Czech Republic. That’s a ‘next year’ goal with an action item for our strategic plans.”
While Prague is a big international step for FINLEY, it might not be the only one, as the firm is “optimistic” about its prospects in Central and South America.
“We are pursuing several projects in Colombia and believe that this is a very strong market that is quickly gaining a lot of momentum,” Finley says.