Magazine article Management Today

A Fitful Pride on the Clyde

Magazine article Management Today

A Fitful Pride on the Clyde

Article excerpt

Looming 250 feet above the Clyde, Govan Shipbuilders' 200-ton capacity Fairfield crane has seen it all. Since 1907, it has helped to build famous warships such as the Renown and Howe as well as the Empress class passenger vessels. Until last year the crane was a listed monument, symbolising the glory days of a past when the river supported 33 shipyards and 70,000 men built ships with that proud brass name plate: Built on the Clyde.

Recently, the crane's listed status was withdrawn, allowing it to be scrapped. But this does not herald another depressing tale of British industrial retrenchment. The crane's scrapping is not the death knell for Govan -- the signal for it to be levelled and and replaced by a huge shopping centre or dinky riverside development for Glasgow's burgeoning Yuppie population. The crane is being demolished because Govan no longer needs it. Revolutionary new working practices -- both physical in terms of new investment and attitudinal by the workers -- have made the crane not the 2,000-strong workforce redundant.

The cause of the transformation can be put in one tongue-twisting word: Kvaerner. This Norwegian shipbuilding group took over the yard in 1988 and, like earlier Viking invasions, its influence on the Govan worker has been profound. Fittingly, Kvaerner's man on the spot, managing director Steiner Draegebo, looks every inch the Norse seafarer, standing 6 foot 4 inches tall. And the way he drove a coach and horses through Govan's traditional working practices to transform the yard's fortune perhaps owes something to a sort of buccaneering Viking tradition. But it works--as a 200-million pounds sterling order from Saudi and Norwegian shipowners for four highly specialist chemical carrying vessels last December confirmed. Though, as the Duke of Washington remarked after Waterloo, 'It was a damned close-run thing.' Without the Kvaerner takeover, Govan would in all probability no longer exist.

For the first 100 years after its foundation in 1864, the yard, aside from the Great Depression of the '30s, enjoyed relative periods of prosperity. But the inexorable rise of Far Eastern competition slowly but surely squeezed its markets. The warning signs were evident when the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders saga hit the headlines at the start of the Health government in 1971. Govan -- then known as Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering -- was one of the UCS yards in the forefront of a battle to prevent closure and obtain state aid for modernisation. Later, the yard was incorporated into British Shipbuilders (BS), the Labour government's ill-fated nationalisation of the shipbuilding industry. For much of the '80s, Govan, in common with the other Scottish and North Eastern yards in BS, faced an uphill task to modernise work practices while chasing the all too few orders on offer in a tight world market. Gradually subsidies to help obtain orders were whittled away, while one by one, the BS yards were either closed or sold off. The warship yards were sold with little difficulty, including Yarrow Shipbuilders, which was snapped up by GEC in 1985 -- a bargain at 34 million pounds sterling.

Govan's workforce gradually slimmed from 6,000 in 1978 to 2,000 a decade later. Industrial relations gradually improved as Eric Mackie, the hand-nosed Ulsterman who ran Govan for much of the '80s, built up a strong working relationship with the shop stewards, notably Sammy Gilmore, the yard's convenor. Double-figure improvements to productivity were recorded yearly but it was never enough to capture anything but a minuscule share of the tight world order book. Its last three orders as part of British Shipbuilders looked like being the last. In the years prior to privatisation in 1988, annual losses approached 50 million pounds sterling. On the Norsea ferry for P&O in 1987, the last ship delivered before privatisation, the loss was said to have exceeded the price of the ship itself. …

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