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McColl's track record shows he could be saviour of shipbuilder

JIM McColl is a man who evidently finds it difficult to resist a challenge.

So we should hardly be surprised that he is gearing up to try to restore Ferguson Shipbuilders at Port Glasgow, which collapsed into administration last week, to its former glory.

As the creator of the Clyde Blowers empire pointed out himself, when he revealed his plans to The Herald yesterday, 70 of the remaining 77 employees at the historic Ferguson yard were made redundant in the immediate wake of its failure. So he will have to rebuild the operation from the ground up.

As he also emphasised, time will be of the essence if he is to have a chance of bringing the expertise which walked out of Ferguson last week back into the yard. So there is no doubt about the scale of the latest challenge which he is hoping to take on.

But Mr McColl, with the high-profile exception of his attempt to shake up the boardroom at football club Rangers, has a habit of finishing what he starts. He did not become one of Scotland's richest men through an inheritance.

And, to be fair to Mr McColl, his plan for Rangers was laudable and he is far from alone in seeing an attempt to instigate change at the Old Firm club run into frustration and difficulty.

It is not the Rangers saga upon which we should be reflecting when weighing the chances of Mr McColl succeeding with his bid to rescue the Ferguson shipbuilding business.

Rather, we should look at what he achieved with the Weir Pumps operation at Cathcart on the south side of Glasgow. His purchase of this business followed The Herald's revelation in early 2007 that Weir Group planned to sell the Weir Pumps business to Swiss giant Sulzer, a deal which would have ended large-scale manufacturing at Cathcart.

Reflecting on the employee numbers at the Cathcart operation, which was rebranded under the ClydeUnion banner and sold on to SPX Corporation of the US in 2011, Mr McColl said yesterday: "When we bought it, it was 550 and they were going to lose their jobs. We built that up to 961 when we sold it."

He estimated the current workforce at the Cathcart operation, under SPX's ownership, at between 600 and 700, noting white-collar posts had been lost with the transfer of head office functions to the US company's North Carolina base.

Mr McColl observed: "There is still more employed there than when we took it over."

Given he saved the jobs which were there in 2007 with his takeover, he has left quite a legacy at Cathcart.

Mr McColl highlighted a renewed focus throughout the UK on the importance of manufacturing, and particularly engineering.

The decline of heavy industry in Scotland, in which the Thatcher administration played no small part, is lamentable. The folly of the policies pursued, notably the decision to bet so much of the UK's future on the City of London and the broader financial sector, was highlighted when everything came unstuck in 2008.

Mr McColl views Ferguson, which can trace its roots back more than 110 years, as an important part of Scotland's industrial heritage.

He said: "This is a prime opportunity to build a good business based on skills that are available in the area: the know-how, the skills we have got on the Clyde. There is a big opportunity for 21st-century marine engineering."

Mr McColl sold on the Weir Pumps business after about four years. Given the private equity nature of his Clyde Blowers Capital funds, there might also be the question of an exit from Ferguson at some point down the line, if he were to succeed in his efforts to restore the yard to its former glory.

Understandably, Mr McColl does not want to focus on an exit before he has even got to preferred bidder status. But he cited an eventual flotation of a revived Ferguson as one possibility.

There are obviously many obstacles to be overcome meantime.

Ferguson's joint administrators, Blair Nimmo and Tony Friar of KPMG, have signalled a belief that it will, in the wake of last night's deadline for bids, "take some time" to evaluate offers and associated terms and conditions. But speed will be crucial here - to enable the re-hiring of those skilled staff made redundant.

There would then be the unenviable challenge of rebuilding the business, with heavy investment to ensure the yard is best placed to win future contracts to build ferries and to work on vessels for the oil and gas and renewable energy sectors.

Former Weir Group chief executive Mark Selway appeared initially to cast doubt on Mr McColl's ability to take on the Weir Pumps operation, citing its specialist work for the likes of the nuclear sector. Mr McColl proved he could do far more than take the business on, building it significantly.

The engineering tycoon, as he bids for Ferguson, has highlighted the range of equipment which companies in his empire make for boats. He also noted his existing businesses do servicing work for drill ships, jack-up rigs, and semi-submersible vessels.

He feels he should do something to rescue Ferguson. More importantly, he is confident he can succeed.

Given his track record, it would be a brave man who would bet against him. The administrators and Scottish Government should ensure that the opportunity to revive Ferguson, and build it into an operation which exemplifies the rich heritage of Clyde shipbuilding, is not lost. There is no time for mucking about.

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