'This isn't snake oil we're selling'

For Sam Adcock, it’s not whom you know but whom you can get to know that really matters.

That philosophy has guided Adcock during his 18-year career in Washington — from a presidential management intern in the Navy to the prime position of U.S. government-affairs chief for the world’s second-largest defense and aerospace firm.

“Contacts are not what’s important — it’s the ability to establish contacts,” said Adcock, 42, who leads the lobbying shop for European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) North America, a company with a burgeoning presence in the United States.

Natalie Whitehead
Sam Adcock managed Navy shipbuilding contracts before embarking on a Capitol Hill career.

He first learned that lesson when he wanted to leave Navy shipbuilding to work on Capitol Hill. Hoping that former classmates could help steer him in the right direction, he got in touch with congressional aides from his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.

One former classmate worked on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and offered Adcock a job opening his mail.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Adcock recalled with a chuckle during an interview at his Rosslyn, Va., office.

He then decided to go directly to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who had just moved over to the Senate from the House.

“Here’s a guy who is clearly motivated by strong national defense and has substantial constituency interest in shipyards,” said Adcock, who describes himself as a “conservative-minded Republican.”

For Adcock, it seemed like a perfect fit. He had just spent a year essentially living in shipyards, crawling around massive vessels and managing Navy shipbuilding contracts.

“There are a lot of things that I’m a generalist in that I have gone in and learned,” he said. “But what I do know is shipbuilding. I know how to do it, I know what it involves. I’ve done it.”

It was with that confidence that Adcock convinced Lott to hire him as a fellow. And, after a year in his office, hire him for a more permanent position. He quickly moved up from military legislative assistant to Lott’s legislative director. And, when the Mississippi senator took over as Senate majority leader, Adcock went with him to the leader’s office to serve as director of defense and security policy.

His ability to build and maintain relationships on Capitol Hill is particularly crucial to the future of the Paris-based company, which he joined five years ago. EADS is rapidly making inroads in a U.S. aerospace market dominated by domestic giant Boeing, the world’s largest defense and aerospace company. In the past several years, EADS has firmly established its North American operations and positioned itself as a prime competitor to Boeing on commercial and defense systems alike.

As the company’s face on the Hill, Adcock comes across tough hurdles as leading lawmakers, including House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), push for stricter provisions that would put more limits on American content of military equipment.

Historically, the U.S. defense market has been closed to overseas competition, largely because Buy America rules mandate that at least 50 percent of all work on defense contracts be completed domestically. While U.S. aerospace companies sell 40 percent of their completed products abroad, the Pentagon awards a much smaller percentage of deals to foreign firms.

“This is nothing new,” Adcock said. “But what is different today from 1953 is the globalized nature, particularly of the defense and aerospace business.”

Adcock is no stranger to working for foreign firms with significant U.S. presence. Before coming to EADS, Adcock worked in government affairs at Daimler-Benz. That company then announced plans to merge with American automaker Chrysler in May 1998. However, the company’s aerospace business merged with other European defense and aerospace firms to form EADS.

In the past nine months, foreign competitors have made some progress in the U.S. market. Brazilian jet maker Embraer teamed up with Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin in a successful bid for the Army’s lucrative Aerial Common Sensor program. And, in a surprising decision, the Navy selected European helicopter maker AgustaWestland, a prominent member of a contract team led by Lockheed Martin, to design the president’s next chopper, the US101. Sikorsky Aircraft, headquartered in Connecticut, has produced Marine One since the Eisenhower administration.

Adcock sees those decisions as “validation of the fact that value will prevail.”

In fact, that is the position he’s pushing on Capitol Hill — that the best product for the best price should ultimately win.

“This isn’t snake oil we’re selling,” Adcock said. “All we can do is present the value and do it in a form and fashion that is acceptable.”

And so go his conversations with Buy America supporters on Capitol Hill. His argument is perhaps augmented by his tall frame, genial face and slight Louisiana drawl.

“He is really remarkable,” said Loren Thompson, a defense-industry analyst with Lexington Institute. “He is sharp, politically savvy, organized. And he has a great network and is quite engaging.”

Adcock also knows how to boil the issue down to one thing sure to grab the attention of lawmakers: the needs of soldiers in the field.

“I have two boys. Eventually they’re going to have to choose whether or not to go into military service,” said Adcock, who himself once considered going to one of the nation’s military academies. “I want to know that the U.S. government is first and foremost looking for better technology capable of providing them with the tools necessary if they have to go and engage in combat.”

But to make its move in the United States, EADS must first do two things: create jobs domestically and team up with U.S. manufacturers. Both efforts are under way.

“I don’t mean to sound like we just fell off the potato truck and we’re Pollyannaish about this,” Adcock said. “But we are not suggesting, nor would we ever believe, somebody would say, ‘Sure we’ll buy this airplane that is built someplace else and has no economic return on investment for the United States.’ That’s not what we’re talking about.”

Later this year, the firm will announce the location of a U.S. engineering center and manufacturing plant — a $600 million investment that would result in at least 1,100 new jobs. Thirty-two states have proposed more than 70 sites. EADS already has a plant in Wichita, Kan., but it does work only on the company’s new Airbus A380 plane.

EADS also will soon work with an American defense company to pit its KC-330 airframe against Boeing’s 767 plane on a highly contentious Air Force contract for aerial refueling tankers. Boeing won the bid in 2002 to lease replacement tankers to the Air Force, but the deal fell apart last year when an ethics scandal surfaced.

The contract is worth billions and would cement EADS as a pivotal player in the U.S. market. But while Adcock is confident that his company has the better product, he won’t make any predictions on the Pentagon’s decision before the competition has even officially begun.

“That’s the reason the Washington Nationals will play the game tonight — to find out what the outcome will be,” he said. “We have a capable product we believe has better technology and can provide value to the war fighter. … It is up to somebody else to decide if that is what they want to do.”