BY RANDY BOGRAND, COO
On Mar 30, 1965, in the back of a 1953 Mercury on the Hudson River Bridge in Upstate New York, an entrepreneur came into the world. It’s the kind of beginning that would make you expect he might be good at rolling with the punches. That, coupled with his proud claims of being one of the very first gen Xers, makes it no surprise that he finds himself at the helm of a company on the forefront of one of the most important technologies in the world of cold storage.
From New England, young Eric Finnerty was moved to Oregon as a boy, where he has lived the remainder of his 57 years so far, in and around the town of Gresham, Oregon. Other than a short stint in Boring, Oregon, where he says the locals take considerable pride in their simple, “boring” existence, he’s stayed mostly close to home, playing golf, enjoying the outdoors, and occasionally traveling with his family. In the future, they’d like to visit the British Isles, with Ireland and Scotland high on their list of points of interest.
If you ask Eric when Vapor Armour was founded, the answer may surprise you. While the Vapor Armour technology is currently the leader in vapor drive protection for the cold storage construction industry, its origins go back into the last days of the twentieth century, to a roof in Milwaukie. Now you’re picturing a cold storage warehouse related to the brewing business in the beer capital of the US, in Milwaukee Wisconsin, but Eric’s adventure started a little closer to home, in Milwaukie, Oregon, about five miles from where Vapor Armour is now headquartered.
Eric hasn’t always been President and CEO of a nationwide industry leading corporation however, he started his construction career straight out of high school, migrating into the roofing business in the mid-1980s, and finally landing on commercial roofing construction and installation. “The first company that I worked for specialized in large commercial projects on the West Coast. And we did a ton of food processing, cold storage. You know, those kinds of jobs were their focus,” Eric says.
“So, I was the kid who always liked to tear stuff apart and see how it works. You know, I got a bicycle for Christmas, and an hour after riding it, I had it out in the garage in pieces. I took it apart and took the sprocket and bearings and everything out of it. So, when I was working for this other contractor, I started to notice, just this icing issue that was happening, especially in freezer space.”
Being the inquisitive guy that he is, he’d also made careful note of exactly what was going into these early cold storage roofs, and he had a surprisingly good idea of why they were failing to prevent vapor drive. Then In 1996, he partnered up with Darryl McCrory to start his own firm, Colombia River Roofing, a brand they still own and operate to this day. Because of Eric’s former experience with cold temperature construction, they found that quite of bit cold storage work was coming their way. That’s when Eric decided it was time for a better solution.
So, in 1998, they started working on preliminary engineering of the very first vapor prevention roofing system. They finally had a chance to pitch their idea to a large ownership group that needed help with their cold storage facilities, and due to the complexity of the project, Eric was told his idea was never going to work. But Columbia River Roofing did get the roofing job, and after watching how this other company attempted to stop vapor drive from occurring in the temperature-controlled facility, he knew his idea would work.
After the initial vapor barrier failed catastrophically within a year, the ownership group was left with a warehouse roof that was completely saturated with solid ice. Darryl and Eric had been talking about what could be done better on this building, so when they got the call to come to the rescue, they were ready. They put together a detailed plan of how their new system would work and started the search for the exact right materials to make it happen.
Out of that original installation, Advanced Thermal Concepts was born, but the name was to be short lived, and was replaced not long after with the present-day brand, Vapor Armour Inc. An interesting fact about that original installation is this note, to this day, 25 years later, it has still maintained an intact Compression Seal, with no signs of condensation, fog, or icing, which is why the company proudly stands behind their 15-year warranty on all Vapor Barrier installations.
When asked what the biggest factor in their successful application of Vapor Armour compression seals has been to over twenty million square feet of cold storage across North America, Eric is quick to credit his two partners, Darryl, and Randy, but the true secret sauce, he says, is their patented process itself, which still today is unique in the industry.
“I really do think our success is based upon just how well our system really works. I think it’s about people understanding what we’re doing, and how important it is. Food safety, I would say, is a calling,” Eric says.
As the reputation of the company has grown, the applications have become more diverse, with Vapor Armour now beginning to appear in pharmaceutical warehouse facilities. “When you start talking about protecting someone’s medicine, and how food born illness can affect their children and families, I really think that message has permeated our entire company. It’s helped us create a sense of pride that people buy into.”
That big picture kind of thinking is evident in everything we do at Vapor Armour. Starting with the key role our process plays in community safety, to the way employees and their families are valued as members of the team that does that work, Eric’s passion is felt. Here at Vapor Armour, first, we want to be effective, and it’s urgent. Every year 130,000 Americans die from food born illness, and so much of that begins with inadequate cold storage facilities contaminated by moisture born biological hazards due to Vapor Drive. We’re more than just a Vapor Barrier company.
When asked what he thinks is the biggest challenge Vapor Armour faces as a company, Eric had this to say, “That is a great question. When I was in school till seven or eight years ago a lot of our country went away from the trades. To me, trade work is one of the most fulfilling careers you could have. It’s just always fit who I am. For us to continue to grow our biggest challenge would be to find enough people willing to go through an apprenticeship program, learn our installation process, and take up the construction trade with the Vapor Armour team.”
That team is growing, starting from seven crew members, with Darryl and Eric at the helm on that first install in 1999, to over 50 installers nationwide now in 2022 with Eric, Randy, and Darryl at the helm. We’ve expanded to 20 times our original production capacity. At any given time, there are multiple Vapor Armour installations in progress across the United States and Canada, with many more in the planning and design phases, waiting to come online, but the struggle is real.
Listening to Eric talk, you get the impression that Vapor Armour will face the reality of a changing work force with the same, bright attitude they’ve had since they set up a 30 by 60 greenhouse around the perimeter of their first installation so that they could work through the winter. Where’s there’s a will, there’s a way. We’ve come from that original 36,000 square foot application to over 20 million sq. ft. in Vapor Armour installations in the past decade, and the industry demand dwarfs that by comparison, but Eric and team are ready.
When asked what he sees in the future of the industry, Eric is optimistic. “Well, I do see food safety has really turned the corner. And what I mean by that is there’s new legislation that has helped redirect the industry’s focus on food safety. So, I think that’s an incredibly positive thing for the industry. Automation is huge. I mean, they’re building massive facilities now where the products are installed and removed by automated pickers. So, I think automation is going to be huge moving forward. Also, what’s interesting, just the configuration of the buildings is changing drastically, the cost of land, also access to power long term is driving the industry to certain locations and the buildings are getting very tall.”
With no plans of retiring any time in the near future, we’re sure that however tall those buildings get, you’ll be seeing more of Eric, and the installation teams from Vapor Armour, as we expand across the United States and Canada, and soon may turn our sights on the global market, wherever we can be of most assistance in improving food safety, and stopping warm air, from entering controlled environment facilities.