Key figure in Victoria shipyard revival is retiring

Source: Times Colonist
Author: Carla Wilson
Published Date: February 24, 2015

When Malcolm Barker retires in a few months, he will leave behind a successful shipyard that he helped to build from scratch at a time when many believed the sector was dying.

He’s optimistic about the industry’s future, reeling off a list of opportunities such as federal shipbuilding contracts, liquefied natural gas conversions and work for foreign navies.

Barker’s final day as vice-president and general manager of Victoria Shipyards Co. Ltd., owned by Seaspan Shipyards, has not yet been determined. That will be worked out with his replacement, Joe O’Rourke, who arrived at the busy yard last week. O’Rourke was most recently senior vice-president of business development at Vigor Industrial LLC in Oregon.

Brian Carter, president of Seaspan Shipyards, said Barker has been instrumental in successfully building Victoria Shipyards to a thriving organization. “Words cannot express the gratitude we have for his leadership and accomplishments,” Carter said.

Victoria Shipyards was born in 1994 when Barker set up a ship repair division for Seaspan at the federally owned Esquimalt Graving Dock. He was backed by five managers.

Barker and the managers all came from Yarrows Shipyard, a long-standing Victoria yard claimed as one of the casualties in the then-struggling ship building and ship repair sector.

Victoria Shipyards’ first contract was for a bow thruster repair on B.C. Ferries vessel Queen of Vancouver. The job was worth only $17,000 and six tradesmen were hired, for a total staff of 12. “It was all hands to the deck,” Barker said.

“If we had a month’s work, we were rich right? That was what it was like. If we had a ship coming in next month, we were successful in the ship repair business,” said Barker.

“Each week, one of the five [managers] would be doing a different job.”

Two decades later, the yard is delivering on multi-year contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. About 550 unionized trades workers are on the job, along with another 125 support staff.

Barker, 65, relishes challenges and has been devoted to building relationships with clients. “I’ll miss that phone call that comes out of the blue from a ship owner with a problem.”

Contracts underway or completed at the yard include about $350 million to modernize Canadian frigates, $500-million-plus on submarines, refits and repairs to cruise ships, and building new Canadian Coast Guard vessels.

Frigate work alone represents “10 years of a solid project of hundreds of thousands of manhours and hundreds of people working. These are rewards of 20 years of believing and being supported by a highly talented work force and management structure,” Barker said.

The frigate program has another two years to run and has led to work on two New Zealand navy frigates.

Barker left school as a teenager to apprentice as at a shipyard in northeastern England, moving to Canada in the 1970s.

Working closely with employees in the yard has always been part of Barker’s management approach. “It’s keeping people motivated and helping them be successful.”

The yard had a setback in 1997 when fire broke out on the Russian trawler Gijon, which was in for repairs. The blaze took three days to extinguish. Some people thought that would spell the end of the company, Barker said.

But new safety procedures were implemented and the company became stronger as a result, he said.

“We’ve had challenges, but we’ve had many more successes.”

The yard is an economic engine for Greater Victoria, O’Rourke said. “It does a fine job of providing good-paying jobs and servicing the Canadian navy and bringing in work such as cruise ships.”

“We’re both looking forward to this transition.”

Bruce Carter, CEO of the Greater Victoria chamber of Commerce, said Barker has been a community leader in revamping the industry. “His experience has been key to that process,” he said.

George MacPherson, president of the Shipyard General Workers Federation agrees. “He was a tremendous leader for that shipyard. He’s going to be sorely missed.”

MacPherson praised Barker’s “overall knowledge of the industry. He’s lived and breathed it his entire life. He’s just got a real passion for it.”

Shipyard unions had an “excellent” relationship with Barker, MacPherson said. During a recent tour, MacPherson said Barker “knew just about everybody by first name. They all spoke to him. I’ve never heard anybody have a bad word against him.”

Barker’s future includes golf, travel with his wife, Carol, and spending time with their grandchildren.

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