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Shipyard saved but orders crucial to get it back on an even keel

WHAT a difference a fortnight can make.

Two weeks ago, the future of the venerable Ferguson shipyard at Port Glasgow looked bleak indeed when it collapsed into administration. In a move which appeared to signal the worst, the administrators immediately made 70 of the remaining 77 staff redundant, dealing a serious blow to the Inverclyde economy.

Over the following days, little materialised to make the situation look much brighter, although Rangers directors James and Sandy Easdale, of bus company McGill's, did flag their intention to bid and made clear their desire to attempt to do something to revive a business crucial to Inverclyde.

A week ago, however, the sentiment turned from despair to hope as The Herald revealed Scottish engineering tycoon Jim McColl, the man behind the Clyde Blowers empire, had submitted a rescue bid. His plans were detailed in this column last Friday, and the point was made that there was no time for mucking about.

First Minister Alex Salmond, visiting the yard last Friday, declared: "I have great hopes that the work undertaken in this century-old yard will continue under new ownership and securing this remains an absolute and immediate priority."

This statement appeared to help establish the tone, in terms of the speed of the sale process. And all of the main players deserve credit for moving so swiftly to give Ferguson the maximum chance of future success.

Mr McColl, who believes that 300 people and possibly more could be working at Ferguson in about three years' time and expects the workforce to have climbed to between 100 and 120 within 18 months, has certainly moved quickly on the key issues.

He spoke with Mr Salmond last Sunday, shortly after the First Minister took the ice-bucket challenge for charity, to discuss his plans and appeal for any assistance the Scottish Government could give.

Mr Salmond pledged to do all he could to support the rescue of the last commercial shipbuilder on the Clyde.

Former Ferguson owner Alan Dunnet, we learned from Mr McColl this week, has been "very accommodating".

He has agreed to sell land at the Port Glasgow site to the Clyde Blowers group for the same price at which it was transferred from the shipbuilding operation to another Dunnet family-owned company, Holland House Electrical, in the months before the yard went into administration. The price is believed to be about £600,000.

Mr McColl said Mr Dunnet's main concern was to ensure the land was used for the future of the shipyard.

The effort and money which the Dunnet family put into trying to make the Ferguson yard a success, after buying it in 1995, should not be underestimated. Without them, the yard may well have disappeared a long time ago.

When it emerged last Friday that Mr McColl had bid, the Easdales were swift to withdraw and voice their support for Mr McColl, flagging the entrepreneur's track record.

Aside from Mr McColl and the Easdales, joint administrators Blair Nimmo and Tony Friar of KPMG received two further bids.

The administrators, when they set the August 21 bid deadline, talked about taking "some time" to consider the offers and the associated terms and conditions. In the end, they spoke with interested parties over the weekend and named a preferred bidder on Monday. They were congratulated by Mr Salmond for the speed at which they worked. Credit is due in this regard, particularly given the need for the preferred bidder to have the best chance of re-hiring skilled Ferguson workers who have been laid off.

Mr McColl hopes to get the keys to the Ferguson yard on September 9.

And he has talked about starting the recruitment process early next week.

He was quick to emphasise his excitement and delight after his Clyde Blowers Capital operation was named preferred bidder. And he is very hopeful about what can be achieved.

But Mr McColl is also well aware of the immediate challenges he will face.

There is a lot of work to be done in implementing his plans to invest "many millions" at the site, a programme of work which will include covering part of the yard, improving crane facilities, and taking a building down. However, he is in no doubt the crucial short-term challenge will be securing orders.

Mr McColl has set out his plans to ramp up the Port Glasgow yard's diversification into the oil and gas and renewable energy sectors. However, he has made no secret of how much he would like an order for a ferry.

Ferguson has plenty of experience of building ferries operated under the Caledonian MacBrayne banner.

Mr McColl has noted his group already works on electrical systems for hybrid, diesel-electric vessels.

Companies in his empire also supply the likes of gearboxes, pumps and generators for ships.

The struggles which the Dunnet family had with the yard will not have escaped Mr McColl. But he is clearly a man with a plan, and with the deep pockets to put in the investment he believes is necessary to bring the Port Glasgow yard into the 21st century.

He will be able to keep the initial workforce he hires fairly busy as he moves to upgrade the yard.

However, a good start will go a long way to helping Mr McColl realise his dream of making his takeover of Ferguson a turning point for commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde. It is therefore to be hoped the orders start flowing back into the yard as soon as Mr McColl gets the keys. Then we can breathe another sigh of relief.

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