Made for the North
Alaska’s support industry provides the right tools for the job
Here in Alaska—we suffer better than most.
There’s a reason why the people living here are often referred to as the “chosen frozen.” With a notoriously challenging climate and winter that includes nine months of darkness, enduring the Last Frontier requires a special kind of person. The women and men working in some of our most challenging industries are no exception. Fortunately, these individuals can at least rely on having the right tools to accomplish their varied tasks. Without the proper gear, tools, and equipment specifically tailored to meet the demands of working here, Alaskans would struggle, and so too would some of the state’s most important industries.
Companies operating in the support service industry are as diverse as the work itself; these are the retailers, manufacturers, and supply chain-oriented solutions that do business at the intersection of some of Alaska’s most important industries. Industries like aviation, fishing, and oil and gas. The offerings of support service companies adhere to a similar level of variety—with cross-functional products and applications that find homes in more than a single tool kit. Shane Langland and Eagle Enterprises embody such cross-funtionality.
“We’re a multi-function business,” Langland says. Part supplier, part manufacturer: this staple of the support service industry has been providing an array of products and services since 1972. “We do [US] Coast Guard and aviation servicing of regulated life rafts and life vests. We do marine and aviation liferaft services and sales of those products. We sell, service, and rent the helicopter transport dry suits for the oil industry.”
Additionally, Eagle Enterprises operates a full industrial safety shop—providing items like survival kits, cold weather gear, and flares for companies across Alaska and those individuals seeking a taste of adventure. One particularly unique item the company manufactures is its electric bear fences, which it sells to outdoor enthusiasts and national parks around the country, placing the company comfortably in the tourism industry as well.
Langland’s intimate knowledge of the state’s rules and regulations is part of what allows him to effectively market his products and find niches in multiple industries, connecting the dots for sectors like oil and aviation. The helicopter dry suits they sell and service are one example. Langland explains that while these items are required for many marine and aviation operations, the oil and gas industry simply wanted to adopt them as an additional safety measure.
To survive the Alaska economy, Langland believes: “It helps to be somewhat diversified in what you do. Some companies do very, very well on a single source like marine, aviation, or industrial,” he says. “But I’ve found through my time owning this company that we’ve seemed to find niches in a lot of different industries that are all tied back to safety and survival.”
Owner Bob Tsigonis and the team at Lifewater Engineering agree with this sentiment. Based out of Fairbanks, Lifewater began designing and fabricating above ground wastewater treatment systems out of welded thermoplastic sheets more than a decade ago. These systems are specifically engineered to withstand temperatures up to -60°F and are resistant to corrosion. After experiencing early success with its residential systems, Lifewater branched out into the commercial sector.
The company’s systems have since been featured in a variety of remote camps—including ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson development—as well as hotels and mining operations across the state. It didn’t take long for Lifewater to identify an additional application for its plastic fabrications, capitalizing on a different demand.
“Those tanks we built from welded, thermal plastic eventually got us into boatbuilding,” Tsigonis explains. “Because people tend to damage their aluminum boats, they put plastic on the bottom to protect it. So we decided ‘Hey, we might as well build the entire boat out of plastic.’” This served as the inspiration for a new manufacturing company: Class5 Boatworks, specializing in ‘Rough Duty Boats’ that are engineered to combat Alaska’s more difficult aquatic environments.
But the challenges companies face in Alaska aren’t limited to inclement weather and the occasional mountain to navigate; freight and shipping costs associated with getting items to and from the state is another problematic matter, agree both the Eagle Enterprises and Lifewater teams.
“[Looking] at the cost of living associated with shipping quotes—we realize we’re in the wrong business,” jokes Lifewater’s Director of Product Development Jerry Fleishman. “But really that’s just part of living in Alaska, and this is where we want to be.”
‘The Bigger the Challenge…’
A major segment of the support service industry is those supply chain and logistics-oriented solution providers tasked with addressing the obstacle of freight.
“The bigger the challenge, the better we like them,” says Tom Hendrix, Carlile vice president of oil and gas.
As far as the items they’re transporting are concerned—like windmills for CIRI’s Fire Island project, or, say, an entire drilling rig second in size only to Doyon’s “Beast”—Hendrix doesn’t feel that Alaska differentiates itself too wildly from the Lower 48. A modest claim. But the items they transport have inspired some of their most impressive creations to date. “We’ve had to build the largest trailer we owned, designed to move 250,000 pounds of net payload,” Hendrix says. “That trailer has eighty tires that touch the ground.”
Regarding one of the issues freight poses to companies in the state, Hendrix points to challenges with Alaska infrastructure itself. “Our road systems are so much different than the continental United States and Canada,” Hendrix says. “Our infrastructure is somewhat of a limiting factor. We’re limited by the Alaska road system to carry less than 200,000 pounds—and what really limits us is the bridges. We have antiquated infrastructure that was not principally designed to be a road to resources; it is more of a general thoroughfare for delivering normal loads of freight.”
Partnering with the State of Alaska’s Department of Transportation’s Weights & Measures agency has been one way that Carlile has navigated this issue. Hendrix is quick to praise the cooperation of the state agency that has allowed the trucking industry to maximize what they can safely transport while simultaneously protecting Alaska’s roads and bridges.
“We took the largest trailer that we have and loaded it with a static load in an 80-foot configuration,” he continues. “We then tested, with the department’s Weights and Measures bridge engineers, every bridge south of Prudhoe Bay coming all the way into Anchorage to look for deflection and bending moments on the steel superstructures of the bridges.” Hendrix revealed that this inter-industry effort actually resulted in having two bridges replaced that were limiting factors to transporting large loads for oil companies on the Dalton Highway.
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Pivoting through Partnerships
This theme of partnering across industries and leveraging connections isn’t a strategy that’s necessarily unique to Alaskans, though the state’s relative isolation and dependence on its direct community does appear to play into the frequency of these partnerships—resulting in an economy that is well-connected, resilient, and better suited to adapt in the face of hardship.
Heading into 2020, Claire Neaton and sister Emma Teal Laukitis were basking in the optimism that spawned from two strong years of growth. In their brief but jam-packed company history, Salmon Sisters’ design work has elevated some of Alaska’s most popular gear. Their printed XTRATUF boots, shared by both commercial fishermen catching the food and grocery shoppers picking it up at the store, are a testament to a brand that is both functional and fashionable. But this also speaks to the company’s ability to form lasting partnerships. Perhaps no alliance has been quite as important as the one with Homer-based manufacturer NOMAR.
“Our biggest partner in that world is NOMAR,” says Neaton. “They produce everything from brailer bags for commercial fishing to upholstery, and they also create a line of apparel for us.” The Salmon Sisters’ cross-functional brailer bag tote is one product of their collaboration with NOMAR. “These are products that folks are taking on boats within our industry, and it highlights the multi-use of a product we can create—from the back deck of a fishing boat in Sandpoint to a ski race in Fairbanks.”
But like many Alaska companies, as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic began to sink in, the Salmon Sisters were required to reconsider their business model and pivot to both new and old ways of doing business.
“When the pandemic hit, we had built up our team and were in kind of a hard spot trying to manage the vision of the company, what routes we would go,” explains Neaton. In March, the Salmon Sisters received a disaster relief loan from the Small Business Administration due to the fires on the Kenai Peninsula. Because of this, Neaton believes they were in a position to pivot “pretty dang well” with the funds they had available.
“We were very, very fortunate,” she continues. “Since the March 19 date where things started to happen, we took the conversation within Alaska incredibly seriously and then just changed. We knew that our landscape would be different and rocky for years to come, that we needed to get back to basics.” Those basics included temporarily closing their retail store in Homer and refocusing their efforts on their e-commerce platform to supply customers across the United States with orders of frozen fish and their Alaskan-made products. “We’re kind of back to square one—in Homer using our tiny space as an [e-commerce] fulfillment center as we did in the very beginning.”
Neaton attributes much of their success in navigating the uncertainties of the pandemic to the partnerships they’ve cultivated with NOMAR and other vendors throughout the state. “The ability to work with them [NOMAR] closely in town—they are doing such a good job, they are producing everything from face shields to masks. They are doing a lot of great things and have responded really well.
“Watching it go back to exactly what we were doing five years ago and realizing those key strengths and knowledge of simple systems… we didn’t realize that this would be so pivotal at this time,” Neaton says. “[As is] relying on those relationships with vendors we’ve been cultivating for years across the state and finding solutions together.”
Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis, Salmon Sisters co-founders
On what form the Salmon Sisters business model might take, Neaton says this: “We just know we’re in the beginning stages of a long haul: we’ve made the first wave and now we’re trying to figure out what Salmon Sisters will be—we’ll see. The people will tell us what they want.”
Salmon Sisters isn’t the only company that continues to diversify its offerings and reconsider its business model moving forward.
Out of a need born from the pandemic and a relationship formed with local law enforcement, the same ultraviolet technology that’s used in Lifewater’s wastewater segment recently allowed the company to develop an ultraviolet disinfection unit for the interior spaces of vehicles. This allows law enforcement to effectively sanitize the front and rear transport compartments of their cars in roughly three and a half minutes.
“One of the things that has been interesting,” Lifewater Operations Manager Aaron Baranoski adds, “is that it seems like a lot of local businesses are in fact thinking about operations in general. They are looking to see if there’s any way they can slightly change their operations for the better down the road—not just for this crisis.”
Certainly, Eagle Enterprises is one of these businesses. When prodded on what the future of industrial support services might look like, Langland offered one perspective on the matter. “Unfortunately, you’re asking that question in the time of COVID-19. It is such a state of unknown right now. I don’t know if it will be good or bad for retailers, but I think that it’s a transformative experience we’ve gone through on so many levels. I do believe that over time this will change people’s buying propensities, retail store opportunities, and change the way people think about commodities and goods.”
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