CBIA BizCast: Australia’s Birdon Group Expands in Connecticut
Portland’s newest neighbor, Birdon Group, has come a long way since its founding in Australia nearly 45 years ago.
The family-owned company began in 1978 as a dredging business in Port Macquarie, about four hours north of Sydney.
Since then, CEO Jamie Bruce says the company has grown and diversified to cover “all things maritime,” including shipbuilding and repair, engineering, and disposal and recycling.
Bruce and his sister, chief financial officer Tammy Bugler, have managed the company together since the passing of their father in 2008.
The Birdon Group now operates around the world across a range of sectors, including defense and military contracting.
Family and Culture
Birdon first expanded into the United States in 2010 after winning a contract with the U.S. Army.
“It’s really important that we continue to grow the business and provide opportunities for all the great people that work for us,” Bruce said.
It was that culture that attracted Birdon America president Robert Scott to join the company in November, 2021.
“Most people would have told you don’t work for a company that the brother is the CEO and sister’s the CFO, but it works really well,” Scott said.
“And it was an opportunity to be a part of something that’s trying to cement itself at the next level.
“Three key values for the company are family, culture, work smarter faster, and deliver to the customer.”
Love at First Site
The first move Bruce and Scott made after he joined the company was to select Portland, Connecticut as the site for Birdon’s newest facility.
Birdon purchased the Portland Riverview Marina and Yankee Boatyard and Marina along the Connecticut River, for a long-term project to restore U.S. Coast Guard motor lifeboats.
“We looked at the other six facilities, but what we really liked about the site here in Portland was the opportunities we could see with the site,” said Bruce.
“It reminded me a lot of Port Macquarie where I’m from in Australia, a similar size community, but everyone is very supportive of what we’re doing.
“So it was really an easy decision for us.”
Bruce and Scott said it’s important for the company to become part of the community for the long term.
“We wanted to be a community marina that supported the local region without changing the fabric of Portland,” said Scott.
“Whilst we’ve got some great plans for the facility, and some of that involves further military contracting work, you know, we can’t forget about where the site started, and what it is and what makes up the fabric of it,” said Bruce.
Growth and Modernization
The facility began operations in August 2022.
Scott says that at any one time this year, they will be working on six motor lifeboats, with another 12 next year.
Each 247-foot boat undergoes what they call a surface life extension program.
That entails taking everything out, and replacing it with 85% new components and reusing about 15% of what was original to the boat.
The process takes about six months to complete, before the boats are returned to the water for trials down the Connecticut River and into the ocean.
Birdon is also making a significant investment to modernize the marina and build a new manufacturing facility on the 31-acre site.
That will help the company to move into full production, which will also mean adding to its workforce.
“Over the coming years, there’ll be more and more work that we bring to this region,” said Bruce.
“What we’ve really enjoyed about the area, as well so far, is the availability of skilled people.”
Opportunities for Veterans
Birdon focuses on providing opportunities to veterans through an apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor.
The program runs through Birdon’s facility in Colorado.
The company will distribute the first cohort of 20 apprentices will be distributed between Denver, Bellingham, Washington, and Portland.
“The key here is the veteran has to come in as an apprentice,” said Scott.
“You have to have a job on the back end that is available to them that they slot into and then we minimize the use of their 911 GI bill so that they still have those benefits after it.
“The other benefit is also about a third of those candidates that we get are usually suffering from some form of housing insecurity. So we’re able to get them in more permanent situations.”
Pipeline of Support
Scott and Bruce said the support of local and state partners, including state Sen. Norm Needleman (D-Essex), first selectman Ryan Curley, Gov. Ned Lamont, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT 3), U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT 2), the Department of Economic and Community Development, and Advance CT, was critical in helping Birdon off the ground.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be here,” said Scott.
“In a business like this, as you know, it takes your workforce, their families, it’s your supply chain, it’s your other manufacturing partners in that your community at the local state and federal level that support you and help you through the tough times.
“So we’re very focused on delivering not only to the customer, but the local community with the types of high-paying manufacturing jobs that the state of Connecticut needs every day to grow its base.”
As the company looks to expand, it is also adding to its supply chain.
Scott encouraged companies in the aluminum and electrical assembly space to contact him.
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