Diane Mastrull: In Burlington County, a small business grows with government contracts for shipping boxes

Jim Brennan, president of Sea Box Inc., a Cinnaminson company that has grown through finding innovative functions for shipping containers. They have been used as a movie screen and to make a home for circus elephants. As a result, employment has expanded.
Jim Brennan, president of Sea Box Inc., a Cinnaminson company that has grown through finding innovative functions for shipping containers. They have been used as a movie screen and to make a home for circus elephants. As a result, employment has expanded. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 28, 2011

Jim Brennan is a rarity for a small-business owner: He has an executive-style corner office. But before you get too envious, consider that it is partly made from a shipping container.

Then again, be envious. From his rather unusual perch in Burlington County, Brennan has been presiding over a business whose growth has been staggering, especially for these woeful economic times - and for a U.S.-based manufacturer.

For 28 years, Brennan's Sea Box Inc., in Cinnaminson, has been demonstrating with astonishing creativity the many uses for shipping containers - including a giant movie screen when stacked 10 high, living quarters for circus elephants, mobile repair stations for military vehicles in war zones, and the latest adaptation, temporary emergency housing. As in, a kitchen, a living room, three bedrooms, and a handicapped-accessible bathroom.

As Sea Box's customer list and designs (more than 5,000 and counting) have grown, so has its workforce, now up to 170 from 50 in 2004. In that time, annual revenue has ballooned, too - from $23 million to nearly $100 million.

But to Brennan, it's not enough. He is fighting for greater government-contract opportunities for small businesses.

Specifically, Sea Box wants more government work to be "set aside" for small businesses. Without that, the size of a small business puts it at a competitive disadvantage, said Robert Farber, Sea Box's in-house counsel and director of contracts.

"You compete against large companies and foreign companies," Farber said of the shipping-container business.

Because it has less than 500 employees, Sea Box is considered by federal standards to be a small business. So it has turned for help to the U.S. Small Business Administration, where Farber worked for 20 years until joining the container manufacturer in 2004. Sea Box sought assistance through SBA's procurement division, the sector charged with helping small businesses do more work with federal agencies. In Sea Box's case, the U.S. Department of Defense.

At issue was that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Troop Support in Philadelphia, a centralized buyer for the Defense Department, was purchasing all cargo containers needed by the military from a large company in South Carolina, said Ricardo Sacidor, a local SBA procurement-center representative who worked with Sea Box to change that.

After Sea Box officials demonstrated that the company could deliver the same customized container work that Charleston Marine Containers Inc. could on certain projects, the DLA - with approval from the Army and the Defense Department - agreed to allow Sea Box to bid for work that had been off-limits, Sacidor said.

"The good news for everyone is the DOD has some increased competition for these items," Sacidor said. "It's quite possible the pricing and delivery terms are better. It's a win-win all the way around."

But from Sea Box's perspective, not total victory. It wants government container-related set-asides for small business.

"Sea Box has advocated on several occasions for full and partial small-business set-asides with federal contracting officers at major acquisition offices at the Department of the Navy, the Department of the Army, and the Defense Logistics Agency," Farber said in an e-mail Wednesday. "We have not yet been successful."

Procurement regulations require that a contract be set aside for bidding by small businesses if at least two small businesses are able to meet the government's requirements at fair-market prices, Farber said. The problem is that there's no objective description of what fair-market value is, so purchasing agents routinely determine that a small-business set-aside requirement does not apply, Farber said.

"That's a bias we need to fight," Farber said, "and that's a battle we're going to be fighting."

Sea Box officials plan to meet Dec. 9 with several New Jersey congressional representatives who are expected to conduct a hearing on impediments to government contracting, particularly to small businesses. Sea Box also will request a meeting with the executive leadership of DLA Troop Support in Philadelphia, he said. DLA representatives did not respond last week to e-mail and phone messages.

Despite its disappointment over the lack of set-asides, Sea Box is flush with military-related work. About 75 percent to 80 percent of its sales are to the U.S. government or to subcontractors supplying it, Brennan said.

Last week, in a cavernous workshop three football fields in length, finishing touches were being applied to a Sea Box creation that Brennan said represented "huge" potential. It is the Collapsible Redeployable Shelter (CRS) requested by the Army to house 22 soldiers in a more comfortable, energy-efficient, and easily transportable shelter than the tents that are now used. It consists of eight 20-foot-long shipping containers - designed as a two-story structure so that the housing does not require more ground area than the 22-person tent it would replace.

The prototype is headed to Fort Devens, Mass., later this week for a three-month evaluation by the Army, Brennan said.

On the commercial side, Sea Box is hoping for interest from mining companies in its temporary-housing model, also being considered for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We're trying," Brennan said, "to be the one-stop shop for all types of containers."


Diane Mastrull:

To see Jim Brennan, founder and president of Sea Box Inc., discuss his company's phenomenal growth thanks to ever-evolving uses for shipping containers, go to www.philly.com/

business


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull

at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com,

or @mastrud on Twitter.

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