Vosper's Long Vision

By Foster, Geoffrey | Management Today, August 1993 | Go to article overview

Vosper's Long Vision


Foster, Geoffrey, Management Today


Shipbuilding tends to be a feast or a famine. But Vosper Thornycroft has a stable, managed diet, thanks largely to the warships it supplies naval forces worldwide.

Recently, there were three almost identical small vessels lying along the quay in Vosper Thornycroft's shipyard at Woolston, Southampton. Grey and squat, they were were unmistakably warships of some lesser variety. Sandown class minehunters, it turned out One of them, HMS Bridport, has since been accepted into the Royal Navy. The remaining two were at different stages of fitting-out. Their names, Shaqra and Al Karj, showed plainly and they wore the same green ensign that even sailors might have difficulty in recognising against the familiar backdrop of Southampton water. It revealed them to be units of the Saudi Arabian armed forces.

The three ships, and in particular the two Saudi vessels, tell a lot about Vosper Thornycroft. They help to explain why, despite being a shipbuilder (a survivor of an industrial species that was widely believed to have been wiped out in Britain about 20 years ago) and - even worse - a defence contractor (everyone knows the defence industry was finally killed off by the Government's Options for Change programme three years ago), the company has nevertheless been riding the crest of a wave. Vosper's figures for the year to end-March (profits 19% up at 19 million [pounds] before tax, on a turnover 25% to the good at 196 million) [pounds] were the best it has produced since sailing back into the private sector in the mid- 1980s.

What's more, the order book has remained at over 700 million [pounds] through successive years of record profits. The company can also point to 50 million [pounds] of spare cash that might well be used for acquisitions. Small wonder that the City has been sitting up and taking notice of Vosper - shipbuilder-cum-defence contractor or not. Eighteen months ago its shares were drifting at around 240p. This year they touched 600p.

For the reasons behind this fairly dramatic success story, look again at the little Saudi ships. But not just at them, for there were many before them. During the past five years Vosper has taken export orders worth more than 1 billion, [pounds] which helped to earn a Queen's Award - for Export this spring. It was not the first time the company has won a Queen's Award - it was also awarded one in 1969. |In every year in the past 20 years', claims managing director Martin Jay,|exports have exceeded 50% of turnover.'

Over, a 25-year span Vosper has supplied some 180 warships to 30 naval forces around the world: including those of Brazil, Brunei, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman and Peru. The Iranian frigates were built for the Shah, incidentally, not the ayatollahs. Vosper managers are sensitive about suggestions that they might be supplying either despots or terrorists with instruments of death and destruction. Small warships, they point out, are by nature defensive, and any nation that borders the sea should have the ability to police its waters. It is Vosper's good fortune that so many independent coastal states were born in the post-war period. Yet it was not choice but necessity which first set Vosper chasing after export orders.

Vosper - as distinct from Thornycroft - had made its name building fast small craft in Portsmouth harbour, most notably the motor torpedo boats which disputed the narrow, seas with Hitler's E-boats for much of World War II. With the end of the war, and then of the Korean war, the British Government's requirement for minor naval vessels shrank progressively to a trickle.

For the sake of survival, therefore, Vosper was virtually obliged to design its own prototype - of a fast patrol boat - and look round for buyers. Surprisingly, two of the earliest purchasers were European, West Germany and Denmark, but they were followed by a litany of developing countries.

In the mid-1960s Vosper (by then owned by David Brown Corporation) acquired Thornycroft, whose principal activity at the time was carrying out repairs for the famous shipping lines using its home port of Southampton.

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