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News / Business / Clark County Business

Tide rising for Vigor in Vancouver

Portland company with Vancouver project grows through acquisitions and contracts

By Allan Brettman, Columbian Business Editor
Published: February 10, 2019, 6:02am
4 Photos
Welder Jim Columbo works in the plate shop at Vigor on Swan Island in Portland.
Welder Jim Columbo works in the plate shop at Vigor on Swan Island in Portland. Photo Gallery

As economic development director for the city of Vancouver, Chad Eiken knows that opportunities don’t happen often like the one that walked through the door in late November.

“Dropped in our lap,” Eiken said.

At that time, two representatives for Vigor, the Portland-based shipping and metal fabrication company, met with Eiken and City Manager Eric Holmes.

Here’s the deal, the Vigor representatives said. They had a contract for about $1 billion with the U.S. Army to build a next-generation landing craft and several other marine projects. They envisioned the manufacturing facility would employ about 130 workers to start and likely ramp to 400 after three years or so. These would be family-wage jobs, both union and nonunion.

Could the city help?

“It happened so fast there weren’t a lot of things we had to coordinate on,” Eiken recalled last week. “Their angle was mainly focusing on the workforce — how to connect (Vigor) with workforce training.”

Eiken and Holmes would meet face-to-face with the Vigor officials on only one other occasion — Jan. 22, when the city officials were told they were the winners of a contest they really hadn’t known they’d entered. Portland and Seattle had tied for second place. Don’t tell anybody, one of the Vigor officials said, because the company would first need to tell several employees who would be affected by the Vancouver choice.

On Friday morning, Feb. 1, Vigor announced it had entered an agreement to take over the former home of Christensen Yachts at 4400 S.E. Columbia Way in the Columbia Business Park.

The cavernous structure once was the factory for multimillion dollar yachts. Now it will become a Vigor manufacturing facility that figures to revive the Vancouver waterfront’s shipbuilding heritage.

Later this year, Vigor will begin working on a prototype of the U.S. Army’s landing craft called Maneuver Support Vessel (Light) or MSV(L). The nearly $1 billion MSV(L), 10-year contract represents the largest award in Vigor’s history. The craft will be among an array of all-aluminum watercraft built at the facility, which is expected to undergo millions of dollars in capital upgrades and equipment this summer.

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The MSL(V) replaces the Landing Craft Mechanized 8, a 74-foot boat with a top speed of 9 knots that entered service in the late 1950s, Defense News reported when the contract was awarded to Vigor in September 2017.

“The MSL(V) will be 100 feet and can haul one M1A2 Abrams tank, two Stryker armored vehicles with slat armor or four joint light tactical vehicles with trailers,” Defense News reported. “It will have a top speed of 18 knots, 15 knots fully loaded, and a range of about 350 miles.”

Vigor beat four competitors for the huge contract. It was one of the latest victories for the privately held company.

Vigor has grown into a company with an estimated $700 million in annual sales — about 60 percent from ship repair — through securing major contracts like the one announced recently and also through acquisitions. Those acquisitions affected Vancouver.

In May 2014, Vigor and Oregon Iron Works announced they were forming a combined company that will employ about 2,300 workers in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon Iron Works became a subsidiary of Vigor, which does business in Oregon as Vigor Industrial LLC and as Vigor Shipyards Inc. in Washington.

The companies said in a statement at the time that merging Clackamas, Ore.-based Oregon Iron Works’ fabrication abilities with Vigor’s shipbuilding and marine-launch capabilities would allow them to complete large-scale projects that neither company could do alone, the Associated Press reported.

Oregon Iron Works’ facilities included a manufacturing plant at the site of the former Kaiser Vancouver shipyard, 3515 S.E. Columbia Way.

The 11.5-acre facility next to the Columbia River — less than a half mile west of the Christensen property — has about 115 employees.

Vancouver, like its Clackamas counterpart, specializes in heavy, complex manufacturing, said Jill Mackie, Vigor senior vice president for public affairs.

That sort of work includes gates for locks and dams and components for commercial nuclear power plants, Mackie said.

Vigor Vancouver constructed the deck for the Wittpenn Bridge linking Kearny and Jersey City, N.J. The Vancouver plant also participates in defense-related projects.

Vancouver is one of seven Vigor sites. The others are Portland; Clackamas, Ore.; Seattle; Ballard; Port Angeles; and Ketchikan, Alaska. The company’s three primary shipyards are at Swan Island in Portland, Harbor Island in Seattle and Ketchikan.

Vigor’s Ballard site will be closing with the advent of the Vancouver facility at the former Christensen Shipyard. Kvichak Marine Industries, as it was called before merging with Vigor, laid the groundwork for winning the Army landing craft contract. Its 60 employees have been offered the opportunity to follow their aluminum-specialty jobs to Vancouver. Another 70 jobs will be transferred to Vancouver from Clackamas, Ore.

Vigor acquired Todd Shipyards Inc. in a $130 million purchase in 2011. The entity is known as the Seattle Harbor Island Shipyard.

Vigor facilities have a 2,300-person workforce that is a mix of union and nonunion laborers. It is an arrangement that has not always gone smoothly.

In 2012, the Teamsters Union, on behalf of locals 117 and 174, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle, accusing Vigor of labor practice violations affecting 25 of its members at the former Todd Shipyards. The suit was filed a year after the purchase.

Mackie, noting the alleged actions were not proven and the case was resolved years ago, said in an email, “Vigor has worked hard to develop our current partnership with the unions that represent some Vigor subsidiary employees, and we believe that partnership is strong.”

The aluminum fabrication plant at Vancouver, she added, “will bring together groups of current employees — some of which are represented and some of which are not. We have no doubt that the teams will work together successfully.”

This may or may not have something to do with an operating philosophy of Vigor CEO Frank Foti.

Foti, who’s the majority owner having purchased Vigor in 1995, is not bashful about touting the company’s four corporate values, which he has acknowledged may not square with an industry closely associated with heavy metal, hard hats and blazing hot welding torches.

The values: truth, responsibility, evolution and love.

“There’s nothing unique about our four values,” Foti said in an interview last year with Oregon Business magazine, “except that we try to make them unifying principles that can have foundational values that can stand the test of a rapidly changing world.”

Foti, in an interview last week, said Seattle and Portland were the leading contenders for the aluminum boat manufacturing plant. While both sites had drawbacks, he said the Vancouver site rose to the top more on its merits than the shortcomings of the other two.

“Vancouver is optimal because we move everything into a purpose-built facility,” he said, referring to Christensen’s boat heritage. ” All of our employees are excited about the potential move.”

Columbian Business Editor