‘can do’ marine
About half way between Yamba and Maclean is the tiny village of Harwood, which sits on the peaceful banks of the Clarence River with its population of less than 400.
This small and unassuming town has one hugely distinguishing feature. It is home to Harwood Marine with its state-of-the-art shipyard and global customer reach.
In recent years, Harwood Marine has built an 80-metre long, 3000 tonne cargo and passenger ship for a French company based in Tahiti, a 47-metre ferry for 200 passengers for a Dutch group, two aluminium 23-metre research vessels for the Philippines Government, and most recently, two passenger ferries for Captain Cook Ferries for use on Sydney Harbour, both 12 metres long for up to 60 passengers each. And these are only the major projects.
Harwood Marine director, Ross Roberts, says while designing, building and repairing ships is the focus, the business also builds all things marine from super yachts to floating docks. It repairs slipways, is working with a Japanese company to develop green technology to reduce carbon emissions on big ships, and it also recently offered welding services for the Harwood Bridge as part of the Pacific Highway upgrade.
“Some of our clients have called us ‘can do’ marine,” Ross laughs, adding that such resourcefulness is second nature to boating people.
It’s this attitude that kept the business afloat when, four years ago, Ross and Harwood Marine’s two other directors – Malcolm Reid and Gio Cervella – were faced with a make or break choice.
“Our slipway foundations in the water had deteriorated and we knew the repairs would be hugely expensive and time consuming,” Ross says, explaining that the slipway was originally built for the sugar industry in the late 60s.
“By my nature I don’t give up and I’m fortunate the other two directors have a similar nature. Individually none of us thought we’d fold, but there was a commercial reality. How would we fund it?”
One of the directors committed to raising the capital privately, and the job – which involved damming a section of the Clarence River – took two and a half years and cost more than $10 million.
Importantly, the team at Harwood Marine did the repair and upgrade job in-house by retraining their existing workforce of more than 50 staff for this new job description. While they were at it, they decided to upgrade the shipyard facilities, making it one of Australia’s most environmentally advanced shipyards.
The business reopened in February last year and the past 12 months have been busier than ever.
The approach the business took with this infrastructure upgrade epitomises Harwood Marine’s business values.
Firstly, its commitment to its workers, in keeping everyone employed during such a challenging phase.
“Our employees are not just our workers, they’re our neighbours. We’re all in this together,” Ross says.
The business is proud of the jobs, skills and careers that Harwood Marine has created for young people in the region.
“A lot of our youngest have been apprentices and they stay on as tradesmen, they’re veterans by the time they’re in their late 20s – ready for long service leave,” Ross says.
“We watch them grow up, buy cars, get married, buy houses,” he says.
The second value it highlights is Harwood’s self-professed old-fashioned approach of keeping costs in-house and not accumulating debt, Ross says.
But while this might be old-fashioned, the business doesn’t hold back in its forward-thinking.
A challenge emerged 12 years ago, when the directors noticed a concerning pattern emerge.
“Our enquiries from international customers were growing, but we found they would get a price from us to build a ship, and then they’d get a price in China,” Ross says. “Because of the costs of doing work in Australia, our price was nearly double.”
To overcome this threat, Harwood Marine opened a division in the Philippines, which could offer lower cost vessels that had an Australian warranty.
“That was our point of difference – our ships were better quality and with the warranty, repairs could be done by an Australian company.”
The Phillipines division employed at times more than 400 local workers, overseen by regular visits from the directors.
This new Asian centre not only protected the business, it expanded it – attracting new clients from France, Tahiti and across the South Pacific.
The last few years have been a rollercoaster of highs and lows for Harwood Marine and if there’s one thing Ross would like more of, it’s a little more work-life balance and time to enjoy the ocean. After all, that’s why he does what he does.