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Durban’s boats stay afloat

Nov 20 2016 06:01
Paddy Harper

Two pillars at diverse ends of Durban’s ship- and boat-building industry have received a new lease on life as a result of multimillion-rand investments that have provided a welcome respite from the pressure facing the sector.

Both investments – the acquisition of engineers and ship repair specialists Elgin Engineering in Bayhead by Zungu Investments Company, and that of leisure boat builder Austral Marine by Nautic Africa – are set to bring significant change to a sector that has taken a hammering in the past five years.

Elgin, or Zungu-Elgin as the new entity is known, was born in August through a buy-out by Zungu Investments in conjunction with the National Empowerment Fund and the Industrial Development Corporation.

Zungu Investments chairperson Sandile Zungu believes the acquisition of Durban’s leading engineering company, which is 67 years old, will both enhance the group’s portfolio and help bring stability to the sector.

The company specialises in the manufacture of medium- to heavy-duty equipment for a variety of industries, including petrochemicals and sugar, and carries out ship repair work.

“Zungu-Elgin will act as a catalyst to accelerate black economic participation in the engineering industry through ownership, management and control.

"This will secure an engineering industry that is diversified and inclusive. The advancement of women remains high on our transformation agenda,” Zungu said at the launch of the company.

The investment carries serious political clout and slots in with the vision of investment in critical sectors of the economy while transforming them, according to the province’s Economic Development MEC Sihle Zikalala.

“It is encouraging to note that Zungu Investments, a black-owned company, has yet again made inroads into a sector that holds immense potential for turning around the province’s economic fortunes through job creation and skills transfer,” Zikalala said.

Not far from the Zungu-Elgin site in Bayhead, Austral Marine, a prestigious luxury boat builder that manufactures the Angler range of leisure craft, is gearing up to move into the security and military boat sector after it was acquired by Nautic Africa.

The Nautic investment comes at a key time for Austral, a family business started by Donald Jarratt and his brother Tony in 1986, which has faced tight times along with the rest of the leisure craft industry over the past five years.

Nautic CEO James Fisher believes the move will help stabilise Austral’s existing business, and give it access to new international markets and new business through the commercial craft market.

Fisher says Austral’s strong existing dealer network and its “impressive” manufacturing process, most of which is in-house, is key to its success and is the main reason Nautic decided to buy the company.

Austral currently produces about six boats a week, and Fisher aims to double this capacity that serves existing Nautic markets, and to increase as the company – whose craft cost from R300 000 to R800 000 – grows.

Fisher said the move into the industrial and commercial sector would work in tandem with sustaining Austral’s leisure craft brands.

Speaking to City Press at the Bayhead plant, which was packed with craft in various stages of production, Jarratt (70) said he believed the move would extend Austral’s life by decades.

The company employs 65 staff, most of whom have worked there for more than 20 years, and Jarratt is happy that the their jobs will be safeguarded by the move.

“I would hate to see this not survive. It would kill me,” said Jarratt. “We’ve concentrated on building a skilled team of people who are diversified enough in their talents to tackle most challenges.

“Most of the people we have here have been with us for between 20 and 25 years, and really know their job, which has given us a reputation of producing excellent boats, but the industry has been under pressure.

“This move will allow us to grow our business through Nautic’s networks, which will give us access to new markets. At present, our business is seasonal. I wish it was busy like this all year round. This move will allow us to sustain production like this,” he said.

At present, Austral is producing about 140 boats a year. Five years ago, the figure stood at about 700 a year.

“We’ve had to build more expensive units and sell fewer of them to keep up revenues,” said Jarratt.

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