Oregon Magazine
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Oregon Business Thriving
on Government Contracts


By Fred Delkin

St. Helens, Oregon is a quiet town a half hour's drive west from Portland, abutting the Columbia River...a County seat of some 10,000 residents, half of which commute to the big city. Not a place you'd expect to find an international military and security forces manufacturing complex...yet here it is, in a fenced, unsigned compound that houses the Undersea Institute of Aqua Technology (USIA), supplying a wide variety of products to customers across the United States and overseas.

This enterprise, employing a payroll of 50+ is the creation of native Oregonian Kim Johns, 52, a former place kicker for Dee Andros's Oregon State football squad. Johns established USIA in1987 as producer of dry suits for his initial career as a Scuba diver and Portland dive shop owner. His ingenuity for creating superior gear quickly built a customer base that justified a move to the St. Helens facility in 1990. Here, USIA centers administrative offices, shipping, production, research and training activities that serve the corporate motto: "In water, on water or underwater you need to stay warm, which means you need to stay dry."

This maxim is exhibited in a product line that includes diving & surface dry suits, thermal underwear, accessories and Special Action Vessels, the latter now assembled in a 14,000 sq. ft. subsidiary plant in Tillamook Corporate divisions now include Military Defense, Public Safety and Maritime Training. USIA's latest contract is a five year pact with the U.S. Coast Guard as exclusive supplier of dry suits for boat and aerial crews.

Unique Watercraft Build Market

USIA's boat-building is based upon unique high-speed designs with molded, high tensile strength aluminum hulls. Customers for these craft include U.S. Army Green Beret special forces, U.S. Navy Seals and U.S. Air Force fire & rescue in addition to state & county police departments (Florida is a hot bed of sales). Latest design is the Super SAV, a 31-foot speedster powered by a pair of 225 hp outboards that can carry an 8-man crew at up to 50 mph and surf rough seas in a broad range enabled by fuel tanks carrying 200 gallons. Armament options are available on all USIA vessels. Offshore and inland river patrols utilize these craft, which can also be used as diving platforms and the smaller lengths can be air-dropped.

These designs have also found a home with offshore anglers, as exemplified by USIA's Black Rocket charter service (see www.Ifish.net). This activity was pioneered by Johns under the title "Captin Kujo" and he has piloted an SAV on a documented (by fishing journalist Bill Monroe) one-day fishing excursion that included a 30-mile trip to Albacore offshore grounds, a Halibut bed and then coming inshore to nail Coho & Chinook salmon, and finally, a Ling Cod. Unlike
derelict charter fishing skippers whose lack of safety precautions for customers resulted in drownings on recent trips from Tillamook and Coos Bay, Johns insists that anglers riding his craft wear buoyant dry suits underlaid by thermal underwear, whose use is tested with customer immersion prior to leaving port.

Johns laughs at the foolishness demonstrated by the Iranian high speed assault craft recently televised in a sortie at U.S. Navy vessels in the Straits of Hormuz..."They used vinyl-hulled boats that would sink immediately if perforated by small arms fire, let alone a higher calibre weapon." USIA aluminum hulls easily deflect all but heavy armament fire.

Johns is versatile fellow

The U.S. Commerce Dept. Has recognized Johns' expertise and has authorized his visits to American overseas embassies to represent his products to foreign governments (he is about to journey to Congo and Morrocco). This activity to date has resulted in sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Following high school graduation, Johns joined the Air Force in 1972. Then following his service stint, he attended Western Oregon University, then Oregon State. Success as a college kicker inspired him to attend National Football League tryout camps, but "this was before the formation of the NFL-sponsored European World League and I didn't land a pro contract." He did, however, follow his football genes to sponsor the semi-pro Portland Steelheads squad for
two years.

Proof of Johns' ability with a camera was honed with underwater photography on his Scuba diving expeditions. He holds a Master Diver certification, works as an instructor and has led formation of USIA training classes held for the full spectrum of customers for his products. Johns belongs to the USCG Auxiliary and holds a post with state National Guard emergency operations (he recently directed Vernonia flood relief efforts).

USIA covers the waterfront

Johns' company offers a wide range of water-related wearing apparel ... recreational thermal underwear and dry suits, military-specified clothing that includes wind & water resistant deck jackets, overboots, hoods and gloves. Jump suits made with USCG standards fit sub-arctic conditions.

Accessories include a waterproof weapons container and special use bags such as a medical trauma kit, radio bag, gas mask container, small outboard motor waterproof bag suitable for overwater air drops and a bow bag providing protective storage fitted to USIA Special Action craft. A portable pressure inflation system is available for dry suit inflation

All USIA products are thoroughy tested prior to delivery. We witnessed this in an inflation-pumping exercise for a body suit that balloons the garment to determine any leakage or water absorption.

USIA a family affair

Johns' wife Lynn has served as first mate and deckhand on innumerable Black Rocket charter expeditions, now tends to 2-year-old daughter Aggie. Nephew Jerry Langan is vice president and supervisor of USIA quality control and product research. Jerry worked with Kim in the latter's Scuba buisiness. Johns' sister Jana serves as USIA chief financial officer following a successful beauty supply career. She also shows the family gift for versatility by owning Lola's Pub in Portland's Sellwood district.

Also key players in USIA executive ranks are Eric Heid, director of domestic and foreign military operations after years of service in U.S. Spcial Forces, and Scott Clendenin, director of homeland security following a 24-year USCG career.

Additional details on the innovative and successfully ambitious USIA operation are at www.usia.com

© 2008 Oregon Magazine