Marc Waddington speaks to JOHN SYVRET CBE, chief executive of Cammell Laird
CAMMELL Laird today is a far cry from the near dereliction of just over a decade ago. It is alive with the sounds of hammers, drills and cranes.
But the voyage back from the brink of total ruin has been a long and at times fraught one. Its story is one of intrigue, resisting unwanted takeovers and “ransom” culminating in High Court action.
John Syvret, the man who started work at Birkenhead’s “Lairds” in 1977 as a 16-year-old apprentice shipwright and who today presides over it as chief executive, is certainly not publicity-hungry.
In a rare exclusive interview with The Post, he charts the stormy seas Cammell Laird has had to navigate to get back to being a major business after so publicly failing in 2001, when the firm went into administration following the loss of a contract with the Italian Costa line to extend one of its ships.
“Try as hard as I did and others did, we could not convince Costa that the project was on track and that we were a capable, creative organisation that was committed to delivering the project, and unfortunately they decided to turn back the ship, which was en route to the yard from Italy.
“It had probably at that time around 150 people from the company on it. They decided to pull into La Coruna in Spain and just abandoned them on the quayside and left them.”
The site was mothballed and the business was sold by its administrators to another maritime company, while the workforce scattered to the four corners of the earth trying to ply their trade wherever they could find work.
“Unfortunately the administrators decided to sell the assets to A&P, which was owned by the venture capital arm of RBS, so in some ways you could argue effectively that the assets of Cammell Laird were sold to the bank’s subsidiary business.”
But looking out of his office over the now busy docks Mr Syvret added: “All’s fair in love and war, as they say.”
Listening to the history of the site over the last decade and hearing of some of the minefields that had to be piloted through to secure the long-term future of the business, it is clear the firm had more than its fair share of challenges to overcome. One of the biggest obstacles facing Mr Syvret – who in 2003 was trading in Birkenhead as North West Ship Repairers Ltd (NSL) – was acquiring the dry docks and infrastructure he needed. A&P made him an offer that he could not accept, as he regarded it as a takeover.
“I was approached by the then chief executive of A&P and the chairman, who basically offered a deal.
“This facility was still inoperable. They came to see me and they offered me a deal which was effectively that they would wish to take a 51% stake in NSL, and the benefits to the company would be them agreeing to us opening the dry docks in Birkenhead, or giving us the opportunity to come back on site.
“This would obviously give control to A&P, and that was not ideal for me because having re-established the business, turning over £15m to £20m, to contemplate giving control of the business to a third party who did not have a track record in doing the right thing by this site or the people in this region ... I had a concern that, had I done that, there was no certainty this facility would ever be operated to its full potential.