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New Aker Philadelphia Shipyard chief has high hopes

He has the good looks of Britain's Prince William - and the smile to go with it. Though not royalty, Kristian Rokke, 28, hails from one of the wealthiest families in Norway. He is the new chief executive officer of Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, where he has worked for four years in various management roles.

He has the good looks of Britain's Prince William - and the smile to go with it.

Though not royalty, Kristian Rokke, 28, hails from one of the wealthiest families in Norway. He is the new chief executive officer of Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, where he has worked for four years in various management roles.

Rokke began at 17 in the shipbuilding industry in Norway.

His March appointment by parent company Aker ASA in Norway was a surprise, coming just weeks after a financing deal, including $42 million from Pennsylvania, had enabled the shipyard to stay open to build two more ships - without buyers lined up - until future work could be secured.

It also signaled to people watching, and possibly to potential customers, that Aker is committed to Philadelphia and does not want the yard to shut down.

Rokke replaced Jim Miller, who became the shipyard company's chairman and an executive of another Aker company.

Rokke's father, Kjell Inge Rokke, is chairman and the primary shareholder of Aker ASA. The elder Rokke engineered the deal in 2001 to take over the former Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard, which was in trouble.

Kjell Rokke is a billionaire entrepreneur who began his career as a deckhand on a fishing boat and went on to build a successful 17-vessel fishing fleet.

"I don't believe Kjell would do something at the yard just because his son was there," said Manuel "Manny" Stamatakis, chairman of the Philadelphia Shipyard Development Corp. and a member of the shipyard board. "On the other hand, I believe that because his son is there it demonstrates they still care about the yard."

In his first interview, Kristian Rokke spoke for 90 minutes last week about the challenges and his aspirations for the shipyard. He donned a hard hat and safety glasses for a tour and spoke frankly about efforts to attract new work - and what management is doing.

He steered clear of discussing his personal life - that he is single, has a well-known father and a prominent family.

He was self-assured, thoughtful, and knowledgeable about an industry he has worked in since a teenager. His first job was as a pipe fitter in Aker yards in Norway.

"Our plan is pretty simple - build these two vessels cost effectively and go out and win new work," he said in his second-floor office at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

"It's leveraging off our strengths. We are looking at building new types of vessels, larger vessels, complex vessels, different types of vessels. We have a host of capabilities. We have built four container ships and 12 product tankers."

Asked whether Aker might build ships for the Navy or the military, he said: "We're a purely commercial shipyard, and that's our current plan to remain so."

Because Horizon Lines, the largest U.S. cargo-container shipping firm between U.S. ports, faces credit issues and mounting debt, might Aker acquire or partner with Horizon and expand into container shipping, as well as the tanker business?

"I'm not going to speculate on that," Rokke said.

The eldest of Kjell Rokke's four children - his parents divorced and his father remarried - Kristian Rokke was born in Seattle, where he lived with his mother until he was 12, and then moved to Norway.

At 19, he returned to the United States to attend Colby College in Maine, studying mathematics and economics. In his third year, he studied at the London School of Economics, and then transferred to the BI Norwegian School of Management, from which he graduated in 2005.

After college, Rokke worked in an Aker trainee program in Malaysia. In May 2007, he came to the Aker Philadelphia yard, where he worked in production control, in the shops, and, later, was head of operations.

Out in the shipyard last week, Rokke was on a first-name basis with several workers.

He praised employees who had delivered the latest two ships on schedule and "stayed focused," despite 600 layoffs since July because of lack of work and uncertainly over whether the yard would close.

"I just can't say enough about the people here, the workforce, for doing such a good job. My hat truly goes off to them," he said.

Rokke said he liked living in Philadelphia. "It's a very vibrant city. There's a lot of culture, history, architecture, a lot of nice scenery, and sports, obviously." He is an Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers fan.

At the shipyard, Rokke faces several challenges: an uphill battle to get new shipbuilding work, and also to manage long-simmering tensions with Aker's unions. Tensions have existed since 2001, when the first ship was built, over the hiring of subcontractors, some from as far away as Europe, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

Management recently began recalling furloughed workers with the start of the yard's 17th ship in March.

But as some return, other specialized workers are laid off. The total in the yard remains at just under 400, down from more than 1,000 in July.

"The only comment I'm going to make is I don't trust management anymore," said Gary Gaydosh, president of the Philadelphia Metal Trades Council, representing 11 unions. "It doesn't matter if it's him or anybody else."

Rokke said a new collective-bargaining agreement was in place and "overall we have a good relationship with our unions. Obviously, there are day-to-day issues that are dealt with. We always have had subcontractors. They have been an integral part of building these vessels."

Maritime consultant Susan Howland, president of Howland Group Inc. in Trevose, said she had met Rokke and was impressed.

"He's very low-key. He was taking everything on board. He is charming, very well-educated, very well-spoken. My sense is he wants to make this work."

"I said, 'I'm not going to kid you. You don't have a lot of time.' He said, 'I know.' "

Howland thinks the elder Rokke's support for his son "is his own statement about how important he thinks this shipyard is. So I don't think the father is far away, and I think that is a really good thing."

In Aker ASA's 2010 annual report, Kjell Rokke said he had advised his son to take the job, telling him, "You will be facing a challenging task, but will have an opportunity to learn. It costs to be a front-runner. . . . If you can make it there, I'm sure you can make it anywhere."

The senior Rokke went on, "I hope employees, the market, and the Philadelphia community will judge Kristian for what he does and not on the basis of his surname. At Aker, your family name does not grant special privileges. On the contrary, it heightens demands regarding personal qualifications."

Stamatakis said the young Rokke "has a very good grasp of the issues, especially in the area of production. He knows what's involved in running a shipbuilding facility efficiently. He came here to work, and he works hard. He appears to have the respect of his management counterparts and the employees."

Having the Rokke name at the helm could be a plus in marketing and selling new ships, Stamatakis said. "The relationships that have been developed at that yard came about largely because of Kjell Rokke's initial involvement. Continuing to carry that name is not a bad thing."