The Yellow Pages in Abu Dhabi and Dubai list quite a few familiar names: New York-region contractors, developers, architects, engineers, and project managers are all hanging shingles and winning assignments in one of the world’s busiest construction marketplaces.

Image: Langan International
Projects like the Rion-Antirion Bridge in Patras, Greece (above) have helped Langan Engineering's international arm, Langan International, make inroads into the competitive overseas market.

The same is true across still fast-growing China, and these New York globe-trotters are also deployed in dozens of markets globally, from industrialized Europe to developing nations in central Africa, the Caribbean, and subcontinent Asia. Most of these firms have carefully built foundations for expansion – and a long-term presence.

But one theme is clear – going global only pays off after heavy lifting. Indeed, it’s almost misleading to see assignments rolling in for a firm such as Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, a New Jersey-based geotechnical engineer, mere months after it opened shop in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“In the last two months, we’ve had a significant increase in activity – being part of teams for very large projects,” says George Leventis, senior principal at Langan and president of Langan International. “You start getting work and your name gets around in that region.”

In recent weeks, the firm has shifted two full-time staffers to Abu Dhabi and plans to move another to Doha, Qatar. But the groundwork was extensive. “Things began happening fast, but it took a significant effort in time and money,” he adds.

Design firms and contractors say they typically follow existing clients into new markets and establish a base for other jobs. But Langan’s example is also instructive: it simply began the registration process to open the new offices.

“It was long and difficult and frustrating,” he says, citing the registration process, a business development push, hiring key managers, and his own travelling for several weeks each month.

It even pressed ahead as global financial markets melted down. “This is a long-term effort,” Leventis says. “Let’s not get a job and do it and get out of the region.”

As the licenses came through earlier this year, Langan was hiring staff, furnishing offices, and handling assignments such as the Abu Dhabi Marina hotel-office-residential mixed-use development underway for Bloom Properties and its architect, St. Louis-based HOK. Leventis says he now sees opportunities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and India.

But seeing other New York firms abroad offers a big boost. “We’re finding that our friends from here love the idea of having somebody they can trust on the ground,” Leventis adds. He says other U.S. cities are likely to develop similar overseas networks.

Planting Flags New York firms have taken multiple paths to building international portfolios, some going back decades.

The journey began for Turner Construction in 1965 on a big Hong Kong housing project, says Ark Latt, v.p. and operations manager for its international unit. That has blossomed into a presence in 20 countries across five continents and eight permanent offices overseas. In Dubai, Saudia Arabia, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi alone, Turner is nearing two dozen large projects completed or underway.

Turner got global attention as project manager on efforts such as Taiwan’s 101-story Taipei 101 completed in 2004, and this year is finishing the world’s tallest building – the $4 billion, 2,700-ft-tall, 160-floor Burj Dubai residential and retail tower in Dubai. But some promising markets are just now bubbling, such as Vietnam, where Turner is construction manager in Ho Chi Minh City for Bitexcoland on its $170 million Bitexco Financial Tower, which at 68 stories will become the country’s tallest skyscraper upon completion in 2010.

Turner’s approach is to plant flags where it already has work, Latt says. “Our business model doesn’t allow us to go into a region and set up a main office and then go look for work,” he adds.

Kohn Pedersen Fox first took its New York-based architectural practice to London and Tokyo roughly two decades ago by taking assignments for existing clients, but it was aiming strategically to grow the firm abroad, says Eugene Kohn, its chairman. Today, the London office has 200 people. The firm expanded to other markets it has since left, but remains active globally, particularly in Abu Dhabi and the Far East.

Kohn says a key approach has involved hiring dozens of professionals native to countries where it has offices, including Korea, China, and Japan, and giving them a role in project planning. “You have to understand local traditions and customs and religions and things that influence how your partners and clients live and work,” he says.