Before he became the second-richest man in Norway, Kjell Inge Røkke got his start in business in Seattle, founding what became American Seafoods in the 1980s and eventually controlling a small conglomerate of companies including Brooks Sports and Helly Hansen.
Decades later, he now could again take a key role in the region. The Columbia Basin Herald reports that Røkke, who runs the Norwegian fishing, construction and engineering company Aker, is pressing to be made chairman of REC Silicon, which has a big, idle plant in Moses Lake.
That plant made polysilicon for solar panels and flat-screen displays until U.S.-China trade disputes disrupted the business, costing hundreds of jobs.
Røkke owns two-thirds of Aker, which is REC’s largest shareholder with a 25% stake, the Herald reports. He wants to reorganize the board at REC (which is also based in Norway), and he may see opportunity in a renewed focus on solar power under President Joe Biden’s administration.
Back in the day, Røkke arrived in the U.S. from Norway as a young fisherman and built American Seafoods into one of the nation’s largest fishing companies. Along the way, his firm, Resource Group International, also gobbled up Brooks Sports, the maker of athletic shoes, and Helly Hansen, the outerwear company (though Brooks is no longer a part of his empire).
These days Forbes says he’s worth about $5.7 billion and has earned “a reputation as a ruthless corporate raider,” the Herald reports.
Another factor that could help revive the REC plant: Oregon-based startup Violet Power is looking at building a solar panel production facility in Moses Lake to get access to REC’s silicon. If constructed, the facility would be the first in the United States to make solar panels from American-made polysilicon in several decades, and would enable REC Silicon’s Moses Lake facility to reopen, according to the Herald.
It’s not clear what other interests Røkke still has in the U.S., but his links to the Pacific Northwest are clearly important to him. In a statement on the website of The Giving Pledge, the Bill Gates initiative that calls on billionaires to give most of their wealth to philanthropy, Røkke begins by recalling how he started out:
“Thirty seven years ago on March 1 1980, I landed at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle as a 21 year-old fisherman bound for Alaska. A Norwegian citizen without a formal education, savings, or network of people in a new country. … I am forever grateful for the opportunities the United States has given me and my family.”