The Aker Way: From Surviving to Thriving

By Joseph Keefe

Aker’s comeback story isn’t yet over, but the middle chapters certainly make for compelling copy. The nation’s market leader in blue water tankers and containerships looks aft to (painful) lessons learned and at the same time, ahead for additional opportunities.

Aker Philadelphia Shipyard (Oslo: AKPS) is the second-largest commercial shipbuilder in the United States, having built more than one-half of the large ocean-going vessels in the US market since 2003. The key word in all of that is “commercial.” Aker Philadelphia is a Jones Act builder, and was hit hard in the wake of the recent financial crisis. At the nadir of the market crisis, the company was forced to make more than 700 layoffs.
In February 2011, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia taxpayers took a significant gamble, infusing $42 million into the company to build two oceangoing petroleum product tankers on spec. The gamble – Aker prefers to call it ‘market vision’ – paid off handsomely in August 2012 when Aker sold the two ships to Crowley. Since then, it’s been fair winds and following seas for the Philadelphia-based shipyard. Figuring out what comes next requires a look back. How Aker (it rhymes with “soccer”) went from merely surviving to its current condition of thriving is therefore one of the more interesting maritime stories of this year; if not the entire decade.
First time visitors to Aker’s Philadelphia operation immediately notice the massive, modern 660 metric ton, 64 meter (210 feet) tall Goliath crane. Only slightly less impressive is the gleaming infrastructure, reflecting a shipyard that has been completely refurbished and in some places, rebuilt from the ground up. Established first in 1801 – with a rich history with Navy work at its heart – the yard was eventually was closed in 1996. With several starts and stops and hiccups along the way, the location is now, like many other American yards, a thriving beehive of activity. In late November, MarPro traveled to Pennsylvania for a firsthand look at this pure commercial, Jones Act builder.

Market Conditions
A booming shale crude oil industry has created high demand for US-flagged ships for the coastwise transport of oil, gasoline and chemicals. Since the successful sale of the spec ships, Aker Philadelphia has landed contracts for two petroleum tankers for Exxon Mobil affiliate Sea River, as well as a $500 million agreement to build and share in the operation of up to eight additional product tankers for Crowley. And in November, Aker also inked a deal with Matson for two 3600-teu Jones Act containerships – the largest ever to be built in the United States. The contract price was reportedly $418 million for the pair, with deliveries quoted for the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2018.
With four of the Crowley tankers firmly contracted and both parties looking hard at the additional four options, these are heady times for Aker. The shipyard’s solid backlog and strong cash position have pushed its stock price up more than 30 times its market low in mid-2012. Despite the large run-up in market capitalization, the company’s debt load and Total Enterprise Value (TEV) to EBITDA ratio both seem to be reasonable, as compared with its peers. That said; major risks include cancelled contracts and changes to the Jones Act, neither of which seem to be likely in the current political and economic environment.

Steering the Ship
Just 30 years old, Kristian Rokke joined Aker Philadelphia Shipyard in 2007. Prior to that, the Aker CEO held various roles, including SVP Operations and Senior Shop Manager within the shipyard and has experience from offshore service and shipbuilding from several companies in the Aker group. A Board Member of TRG Holding AS, which owns 66.7% of Aker ASA, Rokke is currently completing his MBA at The Wharton School and has also studied economics and mathematics at Colby College, London School of Economics, and Political Science at the Norwegian School of Management (BI).
Joining Rokke is Scott Clapham, SVP Projects and Business Improvements and Jeffrey Theisen, the firm’s Chief Financial Officer. Together, they have helped engineer the shipbuilding giant’s remarkable turnaround, and they have done so in an arguably unconventional style.  As a management team, the trio is remarkably closemouthed, but Rokke, in his own quiet, understated manner, summed up some key metrics in the box to the left.

The Aker Way: Lucky or Prescient?
Kristian Rokke eagerly looks ahead to what will come next. He told MarPro in November, “Our order backlog gives us a golden opportunity to strengthen the commercial edge of our shipyard and puts us in good position for whatever comes next.” According to Aker’s CEO, the shipyard’s success in recent years has as much to do with Aker’s attitude as anything else. He insists, “We believed in the product tanker market and put our own money behind that belief.”
Rokke also describes his firm as nimble, creative, and opportunistic. Giving credence to that position, some of the deals put together by Aker in order to survive and indeed thrive, have not been uncomplicated. For example, the recent Matson deal is a straight sale, but others were not.
When Aker built the two product tankers on spec, it was widely considered by most analysts as “a leap of faith.” No one, of course, could know what would come next, and so soon. Or, perhaps the Aker management team did. The public/private move, as a minimum, took courage. The yard had previously built 14 product tankers for OSG and then went from 1,200 employees to roughly 300 in the space of one year. Now looking back from a more comfortable perch, Rokke explains, “We’re proud to be playing an important part in our country’s oil boom, but at the same time, we remain humbled by the events of 2010 and 2011. Today we are seizing opportunities like never before, but we will not forget the lessons taken from those difficult times. We will build off the past, but not be tied to it.”
In a nutshell, Aker had to put into place the public/private partnership in order to build hull numbers 17 & 18. These, in turn, yielded hull numbers 19 and 20 – the SeaRiver hulls. Scott Clapham, SVP Projects and Business Improvements, told MarPro during the same visit, “We aim to keep the equipment and the yard moving and working.” But, unlike others trying to do the same thing elsewhere, Aker had to prove its mettle up front by building the spec hulls. Eschewing a larger short term payoff, the Crowley profit-sharing deal set up the long term benefit of a deeper Crowley relationship and with that, the longer term viability of the shipyard.
Hull numbers 17 and 18 involved profit sharing. And, while Rokke might have a lot of faith in the product tanker market, he certainly couldn’t have known that just as these hulls hit the market that Jones Act freight rates would turn decidedly north, yielding some of the best numbers ever seen in this market. More opportunistic creativity would follow. Next came the joint venture; with 49 percent Aker / 51 percent Crowley ownership (IAW Jones Act compliance), a deal which began to increase cash flow consistent with the steady business. Aker’s CEO added, “We have a history of being creative to maximize opportunities for our stakeholders. The spec vessels are examples of that.”
Rokke explains the big picture even further. “It was by successfully delivering on our commitments to American Shipping/OSG that put us in position to build the spec vessels.” And the spec hulls were important in that Aker chose a proven hull design from Korea, something that would appeal to risk-averse Jones Act potential buyers. Eventually, the spec boats were sold for $90 million each and a profit-sharing arrangement. Rokke adds, “Our long term belief in the market has our shipyard in a position to succeed.”
Today, with Aker riding the meteoric climb in its stock (3,500 percent in comparison with the SP 500 over the same timeframe), Aker’s joint venture with Crowley is just one more reason for Rokke to be optimistic. “We will also contribute significant amounts of capital to the project with Crowley in the driver’s seat. It gives our shareholders direct exposure to the shale boom and we like the risk/reward of the investment. It is a partnership that we are very excited about. Crowley is first-class operator and we build quality ships. That adds value for the end user.”

Best Practices: Here, Abroad and Internally at Aker
“Our goal is to always be better today than we were yesterday.” That’s Kristian Rokke’s stock answer to queries about what Aker is doing better than the rest of the Jones Act shipbuilding market and what Aker – and the rest of the U.S. shipbuilders – need to do to catch up with their foreign counterparts. He added simply, “We focus on delivering on our commitments to the customer.” That entails taking ‘best practices’ from other yards around the world, including Korea. Nevertheless, it was clear that Aker mostly closely aligns itself with a more European model.
Locally, the Aker shipyard has a very European feel to its atmosphere. This extends from the style of furniture in the reconverted office spaces to the distinct Norwegian accents that can sometimes be heard in the hallways. A small percentage of Aker’s approximate 1,200 employees are in fact from Europe. Rokke declined to quantify that number, but it was clear that these involved management visas and the process of taking lessons learned from both European shipyards as well as its own Norwegian parent. And, he added, “We have also learned a great deal from our sister companies, both in the marine and oil and gas sectors.” Aker Solutions, for example, has deep marine roots.
“We have put a high emphasis on harnessing best practices from other shipyards around the world since our start-up. For example, in 2005 we pioneered a partnership with the Korean shipbuilding industry which we continue to refine and develop today.” Aker, he said, emulates some aspects of German automation and parts marking. He added, “We have invested over $400 million in our facilities from the beginning. It starts with an efficient shipyard set up and layout to optimize shipbuilding processes, work flow and material logistics. We melded best practices from many shipyards and ended up with a world class facility that we’re proud of.”
Asked about improvements in efficiency achieved over time involving the economy of scale afforded by repeat, series-build experience, Rokke again declined to be specific, saying only, “We have gone from delivering one ship annually to our present capability of producing three annually in a relatively short time period.” Rokke’s bottom line is simple: come 2018, Aker will be proven across multiple ship classes. At that point, he says, business should take care of itself. That remains to be seen.
At Aker, best practices also extend to giving virtually 90 percent of all shipyard employees off during the holidays (26-31 December), something which Aker says allows them to do necessary equipment maintenance and upgrades. It also makes for a happier shipyard worker. Jeffrey Theisen, the firm’s Chief Financial Officer, told MarPro that Aker had invested as much as $350 million in its workforce, including training. All steel work is done in-house, with multiple plasma cutters and heavy assembly lines. Today, Aker can build vessels up to 116,000 tons DWT and 43 meters beam.
Finally, and with regard to the joint venture and profit sharing hulls, we asked Aker if these close relationships created extra incentives to do a better job and perhaps, a more motivated shipyard employee. Aker executives deny that this is the case, saying that their workforce does the same job on every single hull and regardless of the terms of the deal. And, while it shouldn’t make a difference, it probably does. Especially when people know that the hull they are working on might be leaving the yard, but it won’t leave the bottom line. That’s not a bad thing.

The Rally: Sustainable or Cyclical?
The U.S. Department of Transportation recently said that 15 commercial tankers are on order or under construction at the nation’s shipyards, with half as many additional options are legitimately in play. The biggest commercial shipbuilding boom that the domestic industry has seen in more than three decades is being fueled, in part, by domestic crude shipments that have surpassed 600,000 barrels per day. And, although the so-called Tier II yards – those building smaller but equally important hulls – are also busy, producing wave after wave of OSV’s, inland barges and maritime security hulls of one sort or the other, it is also true that shipbuilding is a cyclical industry.
As U.S. yards enjoy fat backorder books, foreign yards look on enviously as the foreign registered tanker and containership markets continue to exist in an overbuilt, and overcapacity mode. Can the domestic boom last, and if so, for how long? Aker is clearly betting that it will, at least in terms of the Jones Act markets. In the near past, Aker has built 14 product tankers and 4 containerships. Rokke insists, “There are many good shipyards in the U.S., but we are the market leader in those sectors.” And, why not? Where others worry about sequestration and the loss of government dollars, Aker simply concentrates on what it does best. Its current backlog extends to 2018; not including options. Unanswered is what happens then.
Nominally, Aker has so far dispelled the notion that the big U.S. yards can only survive on a steady diet of U.S. government / Navy hulls. And, the federal government has its favorites to build large Navy vessels, destroyers and Coast Guard hulls. Those relationships are unlikely to change and it is also unlikely that nuclear newbuild or refit work could come to Philadelphia. The risks alone to the city and for a Navy that sometimes needs to put vessels out to sea as soon as is possible, seem to preclude that option. Aker will therefore continue down the Jones Act newbuild path; perhaps dipping their toes tentatively into the repair market when (and if) the going gets thin.
It has been a wild ride. Employment at Aker went from about 1,000 in 2010, down to 300 in 2011 and now, back up to almost 1,200 today. In total, the company has won orders for $1.5 billion, and has tripled in size since 2011. As other U.S. yards look to rebalance their portfolios to include a greater percentage of commercial work, Aker already has theirs exactly where they want it.
Separately, U.S. blue water shipbuilding continues to heat up on all fronts. As MarPro went to press, Crowley placed yet another shipbuilding order. Interestingly, and despite the reportedly close relationship with Crowley, Aker didn’t get the recent con-ro order. That award instead went to VT Halter Marine, probably because Crowley apparently wasn’t willing to wait as long as Matson for their deliveries. Certainly, they weren’t about to get in line behind Matson, whose ships won’t arrive until 2018.
Good relationships aside, business is business in the world of marine transportation. Aker’s innovative partnerships and profit sharing deals may well be the wave of the future when it comes to fleet replacement and expansion plans. That’s because while some private operators – like Harvey Gulf, for example – can afford to finance their own newbuild plans on the backs of Moody inspired credit lines, others cannot. Closer ties between builders and operators, each sharing the risks associated with operating U.S. flag tonnage in cabotage trades, will naturally follow. That’s just one way to go from “surviving” to “thriving.” It’s also the Aker Way. – MarPro.

(As published in the 4Q 2013 edition of Maritime Professional -


Maritime Logistics Professional Magazine, page 32,  Q4 2013

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