Sir Ross Belch, CBE, LLD, industrialist; born December 13, 1920, died March 26, 1999

SIR Ross Belch, who died yesterday aged 78, was one of the last of Scotland's shipbuilding ''greats''. He came to prominence in the industry shortly after the last war and for the next 40 years was never far from the heart of things, as a Clyde shipbuilder and as a powerful defender of British shipbuilding interests.

On Clydeside, where he started his career in 1938 as an apprentice in the Fairfield yard at Govan, he became known as an innovator both of shipbuilding methods and in industrial relations. As managing director first of Lithgows in Port Glasgow and later of the Scott Lithgow Group in Greenock, he arguably did more than anyone in the industry to transform worker-management relationships.

Apart from his work in Naval architecture and his skills in man-management, Sir Ross will be remembered by many as a first-class salesman. When yards all over Europe were desperately short of work, Ross Belch scoured the world in search of orders. He had a great deal of success, bringing valuable contracts to Port Glasgow at a time when some of Britain's biggest companies were finding it difficult to keep going. In the Far East on one notable occasion he took a multi-million pound order for vessels that were much too big for the Port Glasgow facilities. He went ahead, nevertheless, and with his technical team devised a means of building the vessels in two halves and joining the pieces afloat, the first time this had been done in tidal waters.

As president of the Shipbuilders and Repairers' National Association, he led the industry in its negotiations with Government up to nationalisation in 1976 and later was a principal member of the committee set up to determine the shape of the industry under the new regime. He finally joined the board of British Shipbuilders, retiring in 1979.

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Ross Belch was regarded, rightly, as a born achiever. Medallist at Morrison's Academy, Crieff; first-class honours in Naval architecture at Glasgow University; director and general manager of Lithgows at 34 - the record is impressive.

Interest in shipbuilding was kindled by his father, a Glasgow solicitor who was secretary of the Shipbuilding Employers' Federation based in London. Ross was born there in 1920, but was sent to board at Morrison's by his family to whom things Scottish, particularly its standards in education, were important. His first visit to a shipyard was in 1934 to see the launch of the Queen Mary from John Brown's yard at Clydebank.

His workrate was legendary. And he expected a similar approach from his managers. The Belch ''Sunday Club'', the assembly of executives in the yards each week to check progress and discuss problems with the managing director, were the talk of the Lower Clyde. Yet, despite total dedication to his yards and to shipbuilding generally, he made his considerable presence felt in other areas.

Chairman of Irvine Development Corporation for five years until his retirement in 1990, he held a similar post with a number of shipping companies, two of which, Altnacraig Shipping and Altnamara Shipping, he set up himself. The most notable development in the latter company was the acquisition of the luxury cruise vessel Hebridean Princess, operating mainly in Scottish waters. In merchant shipping he was particularly associated with the Norwegian group, Jebsens, and was chairman of its travel subsidiary for many years as well as holding directorships in other Jebsen operations.

However, one of his proudest achievements was in negotiating the acquisition of Ferguson Shipbuilders Ltd from Kvaerner, thus retaining in Port Glasgow the presence of a shipyard of which he had been chairman when it had originally been taken into the Lithgow Group. Under his chairmanship this specialist yard prospered, building up a portfolio of prestige clients. So successful did it become that it attracted potential purchasers and was finally acquired by the Glasgow company, Holland House, in 1995.

He was appointed CBE in 1972 and awarded a knighthood in 1991 for services to Scottish industry. Other awards included the honorary degree of LLD by Strathclyde University in 1978. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects. He took particular satisfaction from his part in setting up the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine and was chairman of trustees until ill health caused him to resign at the end of last year. He was then appointed the museum's first honorary president.

Sir Ross's first wife, Jan, pre-deceased him and he is survived by his second wife, Dorothy, and four daughters of his first marriage.