British shipyard owner looks beyond shipbuilding

For the first time since the RMS Titanic was built over a century ago, the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast hosted three “sister” cruise ships at the same time this summer.

Although repairs to the trio of Viking Cruises ships are a far cry from the heyday of the shipyard as one of the world’s leading shipbuilders, it was evidence of the return to life at the site in Ireland from the North, which had faced a grim future until a year ago.

One of the best known names in maritime engineering – famous as the builder of the doomed liner along with two others Olympicclass ships – was rescued from the threat of closure in 2019, by a little-known UK listed company with no previous connection to shipbuilding.

New owner InfraStrata made more waves in August when it bought the smaller Appledore factory in North Devon, one of the last major manufacturers in this part of southwest England before it closed two years ago .

“We want these yards to be pioneers and at the forefront of the regeneration of British shipbuilding – not just in defense, but also in the commercial market,” said John Wood, Managing Director of the UK. company.

The stake goes beyond reviving local pride and jobs. Both deals build on the ruling Conservative Party’s commitment to ‘leveling’ regional economies outside London, which ministers hope will translate into post-Brexit prosperity – a priority all the more important after the Covid-19 pandemic.

John Wood, Managing Director of InfraStrata, right, with Boris Johnson during the UK Prime Minister’s visits to the Appledore shipyard in Devon in August © Pippa Fowles / No10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson acknowledged this during a visit to Appledore when the £ 7million deal was announced. With characteristic bravado, the Prime Minister told the North Devon Gazette that the new chapter of the 165-year-old shipyard would contribute to the UK’s ambitions “to become a shipbuilding superpower”.

InfraStrata’s more modest ambitions reflect the UK’s limited shipbuilding capabilities, which account for less than 0.01% of global production, according to UN statistics. What remains of the shipbuilding industry in the country is largely defense work, concentrated in the Scottish shipyards run by BAE Systems on the River Clyde and Babcock International in Rosyth.

The company, which is listed on the Aim Market in London with a market value of £ 25million, started out as an energy infrastructure specialist and aims to bring work to both shipyards by diversifying beyond their basic skills.

Although he plans to compete for shipbuilding contracts, he is also targeting the oil and gas industry and is looking to use manufacturing skills for renewable energy projects and other areas of civil engineering.

“One of the reasons that shipyards in the UK and around the world have failed in the past is that they really focus, only on shipbuilding, for a particular industry,” Mr Wood said, who previously ran shipyards for BAE Systems in Australia.

“If one market takes a hit, the others will be successful. We are looking for a more sustainable model that is able to survive. “

Paul Stott, naval architect and lecturer in engineering at Newcastle University, said diversification made sense given the volatile nature of shipbuilding, characterized by fluctuating demand and low profitability.

“[Shipbuilding] is technically very difficult, but the real problem is economics. It is the most difficult of all sectors. The trick is to try and make money – and it’s as hard as it ever was and probably never will be. “

Despite praise for its naval work, Appledore was shut down by Babcock in 2018 after failing to secure enough orders. InfraStrata said Devon’s smallest yard with its covered dry dock complements the much larger Harland & Wolff site whose twin gantry cranes Samson and Goliath tower over the Belfast skyline.

Although the Northern Ireland plant has shrunk considerably from its peak, when it employed 35,000 workers, it still has the second largest dry dock in Europe.

One of the large cranes at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast © Paul Faith / AFP / Getty

Since the £ 6million buyout, its workforce has grown from 60 to around 200, including contractors, with activities ranging from repairs and painting to dismantling propellers and pipelines.

Catch-up work is underway in Appledore with a view to reopening early next year. Heathcliffe Pettifer, an Unite union officer who worked there for almost 20 years, said the yard was known for its specialist capabilities such as complex metal plate shaping.

But he warned his 200 former employees might be reluctant to join unless the shipyard can demonstrate a strong order book. “Even if the pay isn’t as good, if you’re in a construction dealer or a supermarket, you have that job security and that’s all that’s important in these times.”

Despite its diversification strategy, InfraStrata hopes to leverage defense and other government contracts. Mr Wood said the need to secure UK waters offers opportunities to build so-called sovereign vessels, such as fisheries protection vessels and border patrol boats.

The first test will take place when he joins British designer BMT and Spanish shipbuilder Navantia in bidding on a £ 1.5 billion contract to build three support ships for the Royal Navy next year. Following a campaign by unions and MPs to stop overseas work, the Defense Ministry has vowed to ensure it goes to a British-led team.

At the very least, if it loses to a competing consortium that includes BAE Systems, InfraStrata could still get some outsourced work.

A government-commissioned shipbuilding study by industrialist John Parker in 2016 recommended that work on the larger ships be divided among a larger group of contractors.

“At the end of the day, shipbuilding is a very political game,” said Sir John, who apprenticed at Harland & Wolff before becoming director of some of the UK’s biggest companies. “You need political support during difficult times. “

As the UK moves forward with its future outside the EU, the new owner of the two shipyards is hoping the support is there.

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