It has now been just over a year since the Belfast based shipyard was rescued from administration by InfraStrata; an organisation focused on the development, commercialisation and operation of advanced high-value strategic infrastructure facilities across the globe.

Overturning myths that British shipbuilding is no longer competitive and viable, John Wood, Group CEO of Harland & Wolff, saw a different vision and now, with the newly acquired Harland & Wolff (Appledore) site, the company is ready to engage with a multitude of maritime and modern naval programs.

DSSI spoke with John Wood to discuss how they have turned Harland & Wolff into one of the most competitive shipyard partners of choice for international navies and operators, as well as what we can expect in the future when it comes to advancements in modern naval combat support and design.

In 2019, InfraStrata acquired Harland & Wolff (Belfast) whilst it was filing for bankruptcy. How do you turn around a faltering yard closed for business, and how do you make a British shipyard competitive in these challenging times? 

When we look at Harland & Wolff (Belfast) and of course, our purchase of Appledore – one of the key drivers, was my background. I’ve been in the industry of ships, shipbuilding and shipyards for years, starting my career as an engineer in the merchant navy, so I’m well accustomed to ships. 

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, as well as holding the position of General Manager for BAE Systems. The defence industry is certainly a sector that I’m very familiar with.

When I came back to the UK after working abroad, I had a look at the UK defence and shipbuilding industry and saw a potential market. Given that there is only a duopoly of primes in the UK, I saw a space for a third player.

InfraStrata deals with substantial and strategic infrastructure projects and facilities. Harland & Wolff is home to the two largest drydocks in the UK (amongst the largest in Europe) − it’s incredibly strategic in nature. One of the two docks can take the Queen Elizabeth class carrier which in a few years, given global warming, will be the only dock in the UK that can accommodate it. 

We noticed that, despite the strategic importance of the Belfast shipyard, it was lying empty and vacant; we started looking at the facility in greater depth to see what it would take to get it back up and running and back in the mix. We spent some time examining why shipyards fail and what kind of strategy we can put in place so to ensure its resilience and viability.

Within the defence sector, often there is a ‘boom and bust’ lifecycle. So, when looking at an appropriate and sustainable strategy for Harland & Wolff, we decided to spread across five different markets: defence, oil & gas, commercial, renewables, and cruise & ferry. By operating throughout these five markets, it means the business can weather downturns in a few of these markets and still survive.

Across the five markets, we offer a full lifecycle of services which include technical services, fabrication and construction, maintenance and repair, in-service support, as well as conversion and decommissioning. 

In terms of fabrication and construction, we’re not just looking at blocks and vessels either, we’re looking at wind farms, bridges and other civil structures too. These include mobile bridges for the army, and infrastructure bridges as well as vessels in the UK and for export. 

We offer in-service support to our clients, often geographically outside of our shipyards. At present, we’re looking into a couple of major conversion projects that convert vessels from one type into another. Then, at the end of a vessel's or structure’s life, we look at decommissioning. You can see across all those different markets and the services we provide; we’ve certainly got a wide range of work to re-invigorate our workforce. 

In terms of our workforce, we’re proud to say that in the short time we have been open, we’ve increased our team from around 60 people to over 200 – subcontractors included.

When we started with the reopening process for Belfast it was really focused on getting the dock up and running and back into service – which we did successfully. We docked our first vessel on the 23rd December – a few weeks after we had got the keys for the yard – which was no mean feat.  We then turned our attention to getting the main building dock back in service and commissioned.

When the pandemic hit, we proactively planned for several downturns in dockings and requirements. We saw this as an opportunity to conduct some much-needed yard maintenance. We began with removing the Belfast Dock gate and holding it in our Building Dock – we then conducted an upgrade that was last done 15 years ago. By taking the time to complete these repairs now, it means further down the line, when the industry is busier, we will not need to take the gate out so often.

We then put together a reactivation plan to get the fabrication side of the business up and running. More recently, we’ve ordered a new robotic panel line for the fabrication space which will make us more efficient and ultimately more competitive.

You’ve managed to have a vast number of vessels visit the shipyard since the acquisition, what can you tell us about the numbers you have achieved and why operators have chosen Harland & Wolff as their partner of choice?

Since we acquired the yard back in December 2019, we’ve now had 25 vessels visit us for a multitude of services. 

I think there are several different reasons clients come to the yard. In Belfast, the shipyard is iconic and a real staple of society, so people want to see the yard succeed and are welcoming a change in approach and outlook.

Another very important factor is, of course, the quality of service we deliver. Currently, that service is showing us that 100% of clients we’ve had in our yards have returned. Our ability, fast turnaround and flexibility as well as a can-do attitude all have a large part to play. 

In the industry, there is a view that customers will come regardless of certainty of delivery and being the newcomers, we've got a point to prove that we are better, quicker, more agile and that we can do a good job – often with a faster turnaround and at a competitive price. 

Alongside the Belfast Shipyard, we also have Appledore. Located in North Devon, Appledore – similar to Belfast – has a proud heritage and is a real point of affection for those in the local community. When the yard closed its doors around two years ago, it was an enormous loss to British shipbuilding. 

Appledore provides us with two separate yards – the main Bidna yard, and the Newquay yard. The Newquay yard has a quayside and a slipway which we’ve recently completed extensive refurbishment work on and should be back up and running shortly. 

As for the main Bidna yard, we have a 119m long roof-covered drydock, so really Appledore is at the other end of the scale in terms of the size of the ship we can accommodate − this is what drew us to Appledore. We envision the two yards working symbiotically – complementing each other and serving two niche ends of the market.

One project we’ve been excited to get started was the repair and refurbishment of the dock gates – they haven’t been taken out for over 50 years! We’re now hoping to have them back in and modified slightly so that we can accommodate new building and repair works alongside full vessels. The gates are due to be reinstated very soon. 

We've done lots of work to get to this point and the market has really welcomed the offer that we've got on the table. To hear the Prime Minister's speech at the end of last year on defence procurement and the defence budget is very promising – especially given that additional type 26, type 31, type 32, research vessels in addition to FSS, are being looked into. This certainly bodes well for British shipbuilding. 

We’ve seen the news on the FSS program being part of the UK's national shipbuilding strategy and of course, the announcement of Harland & Wolff and Team Resolute. 

What we’ve seen of Team Resolute is a very modern competitive tender – what attracts organisations to working with Harland & Wolff and what do you think you bring to the equation when it comes to being a naval shipbuilder?

When we acquired Harland & Wolff, what I was looking for were partners who we could really work with – especially considering our knowledge and engineering capacities. In order to be competitive in the global marketplace, our focus was really on teaming up with the best partner globally.

Having worked with Navantia previously – delivering the LPD vessels in Australia – it was a logical choice. But it is not just ourselves and Navantia involved, we’ve also got BMT as the third member of Team Resolute, which is an iconic British design house that really brings a lot of value into that group.

When you look at Harland & Wolff and the extensive facilities of both Belfast and Appledore – 

81 acres of yard in Belfast, the 30 acres in Devon – it de-risks projects. We have the ability to move components and blocks from one yard to the other.

If you have only one shipyard, de-risking strategies are limited, whereas when you have two shipyards, you can transfer work between the two different sites.

Through Navantia’s involvement in Team Resolute, we’ve got the opportunity to transfer data, intelligence, technical know-how and the ability to upskill the UK workforce. UK ships and shipbuilding are renowned for being overbudget and late, by bringing Navantia into the mix, we’re able to deliver defence vessels on time and under budget. 

How does the current international naval market commercially affect your future priorities?

Personally, I think there are two different markets here – commercial and naval respectively.  

The naval export opportunities are huge. We’re looking at several projects at the moment and definitely see the export market having a massive part to play. However, I also think that in-service support will, to a large extent, be a considerable player within the international naval environment.

We see success in partnerships, collaborations and joint ventures – designing and building partners’ vessels in the UK; and then exporting the design and going out and helping the host nation complete the vessels overseas. We are looking at international options as we move forward and have begun to earmark several locations that we are monitoring.

How much more can we expect from Harland & Wolff for the future of naval warfare platforms?

Right now, what most have seen of Harland & Wolff is mainly shipbuilding and fabrication. For us, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Now we’re looking into markets dealing with weapons systems and system integration. Looking at the skill-set side of these projects, we are focusing on building up in that area. However, we understand that before you enter an area like that it is imperative that you have the right leadership and the right team.

We certainly have some big ambitions, but we have to grow at a steady pace. There is lots to look forward to, especially after the Prime Minister’s announcement. There's work in the UK, there's work outside the UK, – it’s all to play for.