On the crest of a wave

On the crest of a wave

Who says the old shipyard skills are lost? They’re amply in evidence in Chris Millman’s fleet of activities at Blyth. Brian Nicholls reports.

If you ever feel nostalgic and long for the once-familiar sound of metal bashing in our manufacturing, or hanker to see again catherine-wheel wonder sparks from the skilled welder going about his business, you could maybe ask Chris Millman for a peep inside his boatyard. His firm, Alnmaritec, is currently building 29 boats – yes 29 – as it runs down its Alnwick operation and transfers all activities instead to its recently-acquired site at Port of Blyth.

A waterfront visit to the fabrication shop there would cheer anyone anxious about the survival of traditional skills in North East industry. True, no new Ark Royals or Mauritanias are coming up – this is, after all, a boatyard not a shipyard – but to us, it seems a cause for pride, especially since so many of the boats in this highly competitive sector are for customers abroad. Alnmaritec’s aluminium boats will be found under diverse ownership in 25 countries anywhere from Greenland down to Antarctica, from West Coast America east to China.

They serve activities such as offshore and renewable energy, fish farming and fishery protection, piloting, patrolling, researching, ferrying and supplying. Millman’s is a remarkable feat achieved mostly during the past five years since he, a naval architect, bought the company and resolved to give it world esteem.

The firm, owned earlier by Tyne Tube Services, had largely been into various activities, notably steel deckwork for Tyne-built ships, since steelworking began at Alnwick during the early 1960s. “I assume it was a way at the time of putting industry into Alnwick,” Millman surmises.

“It then started building aluminium structures too – gangways, and various other constructions. In the late 1980s the main thrust for building aluminium boats was in Scotland’s fish farming industry. “Then aluminium boatbuilding went downhill as shipyards elsewhere fell away and eventually that business was wound up. The whole company was bought by a group with a diverse range of interests. They had the fabrication company that built The Angel of the North, hydraulics, and restaurants and hotels. They decided to sell their engineering businesses.

I bought that division and set up as an independent company.” Millman brought in not only his personal skills and knowledge as a naval architect but a host of valuable contacts nurtured over many years, many indeed potential customers. He had served his time with the Ministry of Defence working on Royal Navy ships and had worked in shipyards all over the world, including Dubai, Canada, the Tyne and most recently in the Bahamas where he had set up a cruise ship repair yard in early 2000. A keen sailor himself – “I’m boats through and through” – he recently celebrated his 50th birthday holidaying aboard his own sailing boat. On return to the North East from his Bahamas assignment, he had looked around for opportunity. He did not have to look far. He and his wife Bernie, who runs human resources and administration at Alnmaritec, live with their 10-year-old son Thomas near Wylam, so his became a doorstep decision.

“There were a few opportunities going but this suited my background, contacts and skills,” he recalls. “I had been entirely in big ships but that was relevant because here we don’t sell to the general public, as we might yachts. We sell to companies as builders of big ships do, and many companies we sell to now are ones I had dealt with over many years. I had to convince the banks it was a good idea – a lot easier then than I think it would be now.” Is there much difference between building big and small? Alnmaritec craft may vary from a five-metre skiff up to a 30-metre catamaran.

“In many ways you get more satisfaction building small because it’s more immediate,” he says. “You can design and draw something up and it’s being built the next day.” Working on a warship, by contrast, could span 10 years and Millman in his previous career could find himself having moved on to other projects long before the ship was launched. ”It is satisfying now also that so many of our boats are being exported to different parts of the world,” he says. How does such a small company assure its position in global company often bigger than itself? At home there is competition on the Isle of Wight and in Plymouth, Portsmouth, Holyhead, Ireland and Scotland.

Overseas in one market or another it exists in Norway, Australia, the US, Holland, France and Finland. Alnmaritec’s order chasing overseas is supported by agents in 14 different >>countries, many of whom have worked with Millman for a long time. “We also do lots of trade shows and overseas promotions,” he says. “We have a lot of markets to go at because of our involvement in different sectors.

“That’s how we like it, as many different eggs in our basket as possible so we can target different markets and geographical sectors.” The company is particularly proud to have just sent two aluminium catamarans to Australia – “basically the equivalent of selling coals to Newcastle in previous times” – but it illustrates why Alnmaritec’s particular niche so often pips the competition. “All our boats are custom-built,” he says. “The Australian buyers had been told by their own yards that they would build a series but were not particularly keen to build one type of boat only. “We, however, try to be proactive in design because technically and professionally it’s more satisfying building lots of different boats than the same type all the time.

We want to be seen as someone who gives a customer a boat bespoken to their particular operation rather than a standard product that you can botch and bodge, never actually doing the job it’s wanted for.

“It would be lovely if, sometimes, someone came along asking for a series of 20 or 30 boats, but normally any series of ours is restricted to two or three.

But while we aim to be competitive we don’t seek to provide a cheap mass-produced product. Our aim is a product that perhaps few others are willing or able to get their hands dirty designing. “Our project teams here are very close to the workshops. Things can go straight from the drawing board onto the cutting machine and into the fabrication hall. Sometimes it is only a matter of hours. That is something customers value, they know designing and customising go hand in glove.

We are not trying to work to someone else’s design maybe 500 miles away.” Millman has increased the firm’s turnover tenfold in five years, from £1.7m to £17m. To reap full benefit and maximise the competitiveness, an orderly withdrawal from Alnwick will shortly be completed. The new site within Port of Blyth’s precincts is presently a collective of warehouse sheds and prefabricated cabins, very confusing for visitors to find their way around.

But Millman explains: “Our long term plan is to invest and develop here at Blyth. The site is relatively new to us. We’ve only been here for around a year, and some parts we have not even moved into yet. It has unlocked a lot of the potential we want for expansion, a facility where we can build bigger boats.

“And of course, we’re on the water here which we weren’t previously. So our strategy is to build up the facilities, the infrastructure, the workforce and the capabilities of this site and try to stamp our mark on the marketplace. The firm currently employs 160 – 22 in design, technical and administration work and the others in blue collar production.

And 87 have been taken on since last July. “The vast majority have come to us with a very valuable skill set from offshore and other fabrication firms, and shipyards,” says Millman.

“It has been an absolute asset to be able to tap in like that. A credit card-size advert in the evening paper brought us about 400 applicants in a week. In many ways it was sad to see the number of skilled people looking for work.” For a long time building was carried out inland at Alnwick then completed craft were brought down to North Shields where the company had a berth.

“It wasn’t ideal if you were trying to fix things and had left a screw back at the factory,” Millman observes. “It was an hour-and-a-half’s journey to go and pick it up.” The company announced just before Christmas that the Alnwick operation would be run down over six months and the entire operation continued at Blyth.

“Historically, Alnwick is where the company has been based and it was a tough decision,” he says. “But with two sets of insurance, two sets of heating and lighting and two sets of security involved we could have put the company in jeopardy. And the long and short of it is that Alnwick was never a good place from which to build boats and never will be. “The vast majority of the workforce understood it was better for the business and indicated they would be prepared to come with us.”