Alaskan winters are some of the toughest on the planet and can be especially harsh to the construction industry. The ground is frozen for roughly half the year, leaving local firms and suppliers with a narrow window to complete projects. But companies can’t shut down while they wait for better weather. During those long winter months, Arctic Insulation & Manufacturing LLC scales back its production of insulted pipes and fittings to 25 percent of its summer workload. The company could skate by with as few as 10 workers during the slow period, but instead, Arctic Insulation continues to pay 22 employees their full-time salaries and benefits.
For President and part-owner Brian Wilkerson, it’s not simply a matter of cutting cost but ensuring those workers are still there when spring arrives. Employees are the company’s most important asset, Wilkerson explains, and Arctic Insulation’s commitment to its workers and its community is one of the driving factors of the manufacturer’s success.
Arctic Insulation is celebrating 25 years as one of Alaska’s leading makers of pre-insulated pipe and fittings for freeze protection and chilled and hot water distribution systems. The company specializes in fabricating high-density polyethylene bends, tees and wyes, sumps, manholes and L867 HDPE runway light bases for civil and residential projects. “Our advantage has been quality and price throughout our history,” Wilkerson adds.
Depending on the size of a job, Arctic Insulation does as much as possible with its in-house resources. For larger projects, the company works with Thermacor to fabricate pipes while Arctic Insulation makes the fittings. When it comes to plastic parts, Arctic Insulation has the ability to build almost anything aside from extrusion or injection molding out of its 40,000-square-foot, 10-building facility in Big Lake, Ala. Each part is checked and rechecked at multiple stages of production to ensure quality and pipes are designed to exceed building standards. “It’s not about whether it will work or not,” Wilkerson says. “It’s about whether it’s right or not.”
Although the worldwide oil market has slowed down in the past year, Wilkerson says the energy industry remains active in Alaska. He expects that Arctic Insulation will remain involved in building the new plants needed to support that industry.
As Arctic Insulation is involved with its customers, Wilkerson says the company must also be involved in its community. Arctic Insulation is one of the biggest employers in Big Lake – which has a population of 3,350 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – and the city has given continued support to the company.
Wilkerson is credited with taking the raw talent in the community and turning its people into quality employees. Because of the short construction season, many of Arctic Insulation’s employees begin as seasonal employees until they’ve logged enough experience to qualify for long-term roles with the company. Today, Wilkerson says the average worker has been with Arctic Insulation for longer than seven years. “The people who come and learn the system stay here,” he explains. “We want them to stay here for life.”
Arctic Insulation also views the companies it works with and for as an extension of that community. “Our customers and our suppliers are our partners,” Wilkerson says. “If we take care of them they will take care of us.” For each project, Arctic Insulation team members work closely with contractors by reviewing plans to verify what is required.
That hands-on approach has grown Arctic Insulation’s customer base to about 250 firms, mostly contractors, although the top 20 customers provide about two-thirds of Arctic Insulation’s business. The average village job could require anywhere between 8,000 and 15,000 feet of pipe with 200 to 500 fittings, Wilkerson explains. Arctic Insulation’s depth of experience and position as one of the leaders in Alaskan pipe insulation has made it the go-to manufacturer for much of the state. “If you have a larger job, you come to us because we’re able to handle it and keep your costs lower,” Wilkerson says.
Executing on Advantages
Arctic Insulation rose to the top of the Alaskan pre-insulated pipe market by beating out its competitors. Now, it leverages its stocking ability and experience with Alaskan conditions to fight off the intrusions by outside competitors. “If companies don’t use us, they have to go to the lower 48,” Wilkerson explains. “And that’s extra time and money. It’s a no-brainer.”
The downtime during the winter months scares competitors away from creating a permanent presence in the market, but Arctic Insulation treats its winters as an opportunity. During the slowest parts of the year, the company shifts its employees to focus on repairing equipment and implementing new production strategies.
Having already achieved a strong hold on Alaska pre-insulated pipe business, Arctic Insulation is preparing itself for the next phase of growth. Wilkerson believes the company must expand its product offerings to reach beyond $20 million in revenue and is exploring complimentary fields, such as foam panels for buildings, as potential new markets. Already, the company is planning to buy a 12-acre site located across the street from its existing facility to support that expansion. Wilkerson expects to pick up an option on that land within the next year and shortly after begin preparing the plot for whatever Arctic Insulation’s future holds.