Vigor is a diversified industrial business that serves a wide variety of markets, including ship repair, marine vessel fabrication, aerospace and defense, bridge construction, nuclear facilities, and the hydropower industry. Its products for the hydropower industry include gates, water control systems, fish control structures, and hydroelectric facilities. In this interview, Brian Akin, Vigor’s director of sales for infrastructure and energy, and Benton Strong, its senior manager for public affairs, tell us about the company’s origins, its current work, and its vision for the future.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions.
Brian Akin: I’m the director of sales for infrastructure and energy at Vigor. I started working in the steel fabrication industry as a summer intern and have worked in estimating, program management, and sales for over 30 years.
Benton Strong: I have worked in communications at the local, state, and federal levels in government, advocacy, and political campaigns. Born and raised a short drive from Vigor’s Harbor Island shipyard in Seattle, I now work on communications for Vigor and manage the company’s government affairs at the local and state levels in Oregon.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about Vigor.
Brian Akin: Vigor is an industrial company that services the U.S. military, including the U.S. Navy; the cruise ship industry; and other key partners. In addition to ship repair, we have a complex fabrication division. It services the nuclear market, where we are very active; the bridge market; the hydroelectric market; and the aerospace and defense market. We also do new-build construction, including building ferries for the State of Washington and other governments and building specialty watercraft for the U.S. military and international customers. In the hydroelectric field, we service large, complex gates and water control systems and renewable power generation facilities, which are common in the Columbia and Snake River systems, right in our backyard.
Benton Strong: We’re active in both national and international markets and are headquartered in Portland, Oregon. We have shipyards in Swan Island in Portland; Seattle, Washington; and Ketchikan, Alaska, as well as two other fabrication facilities in the greater Portland region and satellite operations in other places, including Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We have approximately 2,200 employees across all locations, about 1,500 of whom are in the Portland region, which is also where we do our hydro work. Currently, our complex fabrication is primarily done in our locations in the greater Portland metro area. Vigor operates as part of Titan Acquisition Holdings, our parent company. Other parts of the family of companies under Titan include MHI, based in Norfolk, Virginia, and Continental Maritime of San Diego, California.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your products.
Brian Akin: People turn to us first and foremost because of our ability to build large, complex structures. We are a full turnkey integrator of these systems, by which I mean that we fabricate, machine, and also provide the coatings for these components. Our ability to ship both nationally and internationally is another big advantage. We are active in the Midwest and on the East Coast for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and private energy companies. In hydro, we’ve gone as far as Ceresco Dam in Puerto Rico. The foundation of these capabilities is our tremendously skilled workforce.
Hydro Leader: Would you give us some examples of the hydro-related work you do?
Brian Akin: We have done significant work in the Midwest for the Army Corps, which has long been a valued customer. We have built a wide variety of water control gates for the three rivers that converge on the Pittsburgh District in the Ohio Valley. Our work in the Northwest on the Snake and Columbia tributaries from the Portland area up into Idaho includes providing a large number of complex miter gates for the lock and dam systems that allow barges to pass the dams on these rivers. We built big tainter gates for Folsom Dam in California and have provided gates and valves for lakes and power systems on the West Coast. We’ve also done some environmental work, such as producing fish screens.
Hydro Leader: Are many of those projects new-build construction, or are you doing a lot of retrofitting?
Brian Akin: Vigor is active on both new builds and retrofitting. On the new-build side, we constructed four new energy plants for American Municipal Power Ohio and produced replacement products for existing structures, such as Folsom Dam. The replacement of existing structures is about 70 percent of our business and new-build construction for hydro products is about 30 percent.
Hydro Leader: Has hydro been part of your company’s work from its beginning?
Brian Akin: Hydro was an area of work that helped Vigor and its predecessors build the business. The proximity and importance of the hydro dams in the Pacific Northwest had a big effect on that. The company cut its teeth on fish screens for dams, so hydro helped the company get its foothold within the steel fabrication market.
Hydro Leader: How has the design of fish screens evolved since that time?
Brian Akin: The concept design has not changed much from the original, but today we use much better components. There is a revolving screen component similar to an almost-20‑foot-wide conveyor belt. The screens on those components have changed to put less stress on the fish and to use more mechanically sound equipment.
Hydro Leader: Do you manufacture trash racks?
Brian Akin: We have manufactured those in the past. They do need to be replaced often. They take a beating—a ton of debris from mudslides and fires comes down the river, and those trash racks keep it from going into the turbines.
Hydro Leader: What are your company’s other top concerns?
Brian Akin: When it comes to materials, no one is immune to the escalation of pricing related to supply constraints we’ve seen, which has been substantial for steel products and has also affected wood products, cars, and ships. Across the industry, steel prices have doubled since fall 2020. My big concern is that when we bid projects now, the pricing is coming in so far above the owner’s budget or the engineer’s estimate that they’re putting off the projects until the prices come back down or stabilize, which may not happen for a year or two.
The second issue is availability. Due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, a lot of the mills went down, and now, with demand going through the roof because of delayed projects, a lot of those mills still aren’t fully online or back to full capacity. The simple economics of demand versus supply mean that prices are at an all-time high and that there are longer lead times, which affect the schedules of new projects.
Hydro Leader: What is your vision for the future?
Brian Akin: As it relates to the complex fabrication side of our business, I think we’re going to continue to see growth within the fabrication industry related to aging infrastructure. We’re starting to see a tremendous number of opportunities from the Army Corps, Reclamation, other government entities, and private power companies. A number of them are recognizing that many of the structures built in the early 1900s are now at their maturity dates and need to be replaced before there is a failure.
Offshore wind is another big opportunity that we’re seeing coming up; there are projects in Oregon and California. The current administration is supporting it tremendously. People are reaching out to Vigor because of our facilities and our proximity to those job sites. Unlike on the East Coast, where offshore wind facilities are built on shallow shelves of land, West Coast installations require big, semisubmersible platforms to support them. Our facilities in Portland and Seattle are well positioned to support that new industry.
Benton Strong: We think a lot about the future of industrial jobs, and there are strong, family-wage jobs at Vigor. The maritime administration just released a report that pegged the average income in the shipbuilding and ship repair industry at $93,000 a year. It’s certainly higher in the places where we operate. These are really good jobs, and we see a future in which these jobs continue to be part of the economic foundation. Some of them will be in shipbuilding and repair, but a lot of them are going to be in the clean energy industries of the future, including hydro and wave energy. As a values-driven company, we believe both in creating and supporting those kinds of jobs for families around the country and in a future that relies on cleaner energy sources.