by Susan Smith
A company’s ability to adapt to foreign markets is an obvious key to its export success. But just as important is the more complex ability to attune existing expertise to the needs of an ever-changing business landscape.
Since its inception in 1997, Octaform Systems Inc. of Vancouver has got it right on both counts. The company has expanded throughout the world with its stay-in-place concrete forming system that allows structures of all sorts to be shaped, protected and finished in one step.
In recent years the company has been using its considerable toolkit to help fight climate change, a pressing concern of global proportions. Company President David Richardson says Octaform begun building biogas and waste management facilities that curb the release of greenhouse gasses about five years ago.
In Germany, for instance, the company has constructed multiple biogas facilities linked to dairy and hog farming. The biogas operations capture the methane gas emitted by cattle manure. The methane is then cleaned, compressed and either fed into natural gas lines to be used as a renewable energy source, or to power an electricity generator connected to the grid. In doing so, the gas is not only contained, but provides an alternative energy source and a double benefit to the environment.
“Methane and carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere are two of the principal causes of global warming,” Richardson says. “So we absolutely need to stop putting raw manure on fields.” Methane, he adds, is more reliable as an alternative energy source than both wind and solar. “One of the advantages of methane is that it doesn’t care if the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. In the middle of the night, the microbes are still making gas.”
Octaform is also helping the environment by serving companies that manage other forms of waste. Its concrete forming system was used in a massive anaerobic digestion facility built by a recycling and waste management company in Perris, Calif., about two hours from Los Angeles. The company converts the municipal waste it collects into gas used to power its trucks.
“We need to stop putting compostable urban waste into landfills where it creates either methane or carbon dioxide,” Richardson says. He sees a huge potential for captured methane to power vehicles in the future, as a replacement for diesel and gasoline.
“There’s a bigger picture here.”
Octaform’s reinforced concrete structures – as well as other products made by the company, which can be used to reinforce other concrete structures – are also demonstrating their ability to withstand damage from seismic activity and extreme weather events. In 2011, for example, an Octaform-built aquaculture facility near Fukushima suffered no damage while the historic earthquake and tidal waves reduced most other structures in the region to rubble.
While climate solutions are one aspect of its business, the company has already built a solid foundation in its core areas, having sold various applications in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Australia and Korea.
Recently, Octaform’s concrete-forming system was used to build Aquarium Encounters in the Florida Keys, which invites visitors to swim with exotic sea life.
In Saudi Arabia, the company’s wall systems are employed in constructing the world’s largest recirculating aquaculture system, which will be used to breed and grow fish.
Q&A with David Richardson, President, Octaform Systems Inc.
What was your first export sale?
It was about 15 years ago for the hog industry in the Northern United States for barns and manure tanks.
How did that first export opportunity arise?
That first sale arose through a combination of active selling and word getting around about how our product was being used in Canada.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? By that time I had been involved with international relations and development for years. My first trip to China was in 1977, which opened my eyes to global opportunities. Later, I was on the board of directors of the Canada China Trade Council (now the Canada China Business Council) and chaired the agricultural committee. I led a trade mission to Northern China and was one of the founders of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. But no matter how much experience one has, it’s wise to stay cautious and skeptical. Every international situation has its own pitfalls and life lessons.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
The difficulties of marketing into a country with a different language are still there, but English is more prevalent now. It is also easier now because of advances in technology, which allow you to share visual examples of what you are trying to convey. And you can always go to Google translate.
What is the No. 1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade? The No. 1 thing is to protect yourself, both financially and in terms of intellectual property. Use the services of the consulates, the embassies, the Canadian field offices. Use the best lawyers you can find and your agreements should be ironclad. Don’t extend yourself beyond what you can afford to lose if things go bad.
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