12 DECEMBER 2001

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Talk must become action if Drydocks is to be saved

By Miriam Dunn

The best way to save Malta Drydocks from a bleak future is to stop postponing difficult decisions, face reality and act promptly.
These were the no-nonsense words of the ‘yard’s chairman, John Cassar White, when speaking yesterday to The Malta Financial and Business Times.
Much has been made of the fact that there is not full agreement on various aspects of the restructuring plan for Malta Drydocks, which was handed in to Cabinet last week. There has also been scepticism as to whether targets laid out in the plan, drawn up by a task force specifically set up to deal with this sensitive sector, can be reached.
Mr Cassar White admitted there are "no guarantees" in what he described as "this risky business", but implied that it was a change in mentality that could make or break the ‘yard’s future.
"Our targets are not unrealistic unless we assume that the best we can achieve is mediocrity," he said.
In the plan, there were projections that the workforce would be cut by 50% within seven years, alongside the removal of almost all government subsidies. The task force also worked on the lines that turnover would rise to almost double.
Mr Cassar White yesterday dismissed the idea that the problems at the Drydocks could be solved with better marketing or investing in new activities in which the ‘yard could never be competitive, describing these as "just red herrings that distract us from the real issues".
One such problem is the fact that the ship repair industry has significant overcapacity worldwide.
"Even if we do everything right there is always a risk that we will not achieve our targets fully," he said. "But we will surely fail miserably if we continue to postpone difficult but important decisions.
"We owe to ourselves and to our workers to face reality, talk less and act more promptly to save our shipyards from a bleak future."
Mr Cassar White warned against the idea of relying on government help right from the beginning and also highlighted the need to think in competitive terms.
"If the way we manage our business is fundamentally sound, we can redefine our targets, take corrective measures and, if need be, ask for assistance," he said. "This does not mean that right from the very beginning of our planning process we rely on what the Italians call ‘assistenzialismo’, i.e. a mentality that in case of need we can rely on government bailing us out of our difficulties.
"This mentality which unfortunately is so prevalent among public sector companies in Malta deprives us of our hunger to succeed, to rely on our resources, to prove to ourselves and to everyone else that we can win this difficult challenge."
When asked how the Drydocks management would deal with any protests the unions might make over job shedding, Mr Cassar White admitted that the unions have a "very difficult task ahead of them".
"They are the ones who have to face their members who naturally fear over the uncertainty that this restructuring will bring to their lives," he said.
The Drydocks chairman said that the Council of the Malta Drydocks would continue to lead in the reform programme if all the parties agree on reforms.
Turning to the thorny issue of lack of agreement over the best way forward for the ‘yard, Mr Cassar White stressed that the shipyards would have far better prospects if there was consensus to change the factors which were affecting performance there.
He admitted that the management is proposing a "radical change", but stressed this was a bid to guarantee a better future for the shipyards.
"The other two options to agreement to change are maintaining the ‘status quo’ or a programme of forced change.
"A very different style of management will be needed if either of these latter options are adopted for our shipyards," was his final, thought-provoking comment.


The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt