Long a crewboat specialist, Chantiers Allais, now part of the Efinor group, is shifting its focus to boats for the defence and security sectors.
A few weeks ago Cherbourg-based boatbuilder Chantiers Allais was taken over by Normandy-based diversified engineering group Efinor. A statement soon followed announcing that Allais planned to shift its focus to boats for the defence and security sectors, beginning with a family of aluminium-hulled interceptors and patrol boats ranging from 15 to 35 metres in length.
Chantiers Allais was established in Dieppe in 1984 by François Allais. In 2005, the company moved to premises on the Cherbourg naval base. Allais had considerable success with its Surfer and WindCrewSurfer crewboats for the offshore oil & gas industry, delivering a large number to operator Bourbon, the company’s main client. However, the crisis in offshore oil & gas led to a sudden fall in the orders received. After delivering some 300 boats, Allais, which employed up to 200 people five years ago, had slashed its workforce to just 76 in 2015 before going into receivership in March 2016. Six months later, Efinor decided to take over the boatbuilder. “My idea was to take over the yard and its team — the sheetmetal workers and welders are particularly skilled — for their acclaimed expertise and the fact that together they know how to build boats from A to Z. Another reason is that the facilities, infrastructure and management are very efficient,” said Efinor Chairman Fabrice Lepotier.
A Bourbon Surfer-type crewboat at the Allais yard in the 2000s (© French Navy)
More focussed than ever on boatbuilding
Efinor, founded by Fabrice Lepotier 28 years ago, currently generates annual revenues of around €50 million and employs some 600 people. The group has three main branches: Engineering (250 employees), Manufacturing (300 employees) and Maintenance (50 employees). A significant proportion of the group’s work has always been associated with shipbuilding and vessel through-life support. “We have long worked for the Saint-Nazaire yards as well as the DCNS yards at Cherbourg, Brest and Lorient as either a subcontractor or a supplier. The contracts have included engineering tasks, work on weapon systems, the outfitting of cruise vessels and frigates, welding work on submarine hulls and so forth. Depending on the year, shipyard work represents anywhere from 30 to 50% of our annual revenue while the energy sector, where demand is currently strong, represents a similar proportion and aerospace is now up to about 10%. We also work in the oil & gas sector. Otherwise, our overall strategy is steady diversification.”
“The potential and skills are there”
Given the Allais yard’s track record in boatbuilding, Fabrice Lepotier felt that something had to be done when it went into receivership. “With Efinor’s help, Allais will soon be back on its feet. The yard had over 30 very successful years thanks largely to François Allais’ talent and his personnel’s dedication. The company always made a profit until the oil & gas downturn, but paid the price for its over-dependence on one key long-standing client. Still, the potential and skills are there. And, with the backing and resources of a group that has metal bending in its DNA, we believe that it will soon be a going concern once again. This is why we decided to take the leap and, by the same occasion, increase our commitment to boatbuilding, which is complementary to our other lines of business.”
For the project to be feasible, it was not possible to take on more than 45 members of the workforce. Fabrice Lepotier also asked the founder to stay on. “François Allais is now working with me, focussing on client relations, design work and bids. His presence is vital. If he hadn’t been available, we would never have taken on the challenge. Even someone with a solid background in boatbuilding would have trouble bringing together François’ skills as naval architect, assembler and integrator.”
Two crewboats under construction
On the business front, Allais has not abandoned the offshore oil & gas sector entirely. Despite the downturn, there is still some demand for crewboats. One difference, however, is that today’s clients want their boats more quickly. Efinor’s response was to launch the construction of two 19-metre Surfer crewboats for off-the-shelf delivery. These will be completed in January and February 2017.
More importantly, the group has decided to shift the yard’s focus to boats for the defence and security sectors. “François Allais had, in fact, started to diversify and was working on designs for this market segment when his company went into receivership.” Given the strong demand in this sector, the new owners decided to make it their top priority. “We’ve got a strong hand, excellent designs, and a boatyard that is efficient and well regarded, not to mention its reputation for product quality and longevity; all of which we aim to maintain,” said Efinor Chairman Fabrice Lepotier.
Surveyor 240 (© : Efinor)
New maritime security range
With Efinor’s backing, including access to its naval architects, the Allais design team is working on a range of boats up to 35 metres in length for the defence and maritime security sectors. The range will include launches and patrol boats to monitor and protect EEZs and high-speed interceptors to combat piracy, terrorism and illegal trafficking. The range, comprising the Blitz and Surveyor families, was presented for the first time at the Euronaval 2016 show in Paris in October.
Le Blitz 55 (© : Efinor)
While the demand for interceptors, patrol boats and launches is strong — mostly in response to perceived increases in maritime threats and growing tension between certain countries — so too is the competition. In France alone a number of boatbuilders are already well placed. “It’s true that there is plenty of competition. But we’re ready to fight for a share of the market. In fact, we’re used to this sort of thing,” said Efinor Chairman Lepotier who has taken on more than a few challenges in his time, beginning with his first company which he set up at the tender age of 22 with just a trade diploma in sheetmetal work in his pocket.
Efinor Chairman Lepotier is ambitious and clearly has the energy. As a strategist, he also knows that some things take time. “We must proceed with caution. This is why our provisional budget set the bar at a reasonable height. We need to take our time and do things properly. Even if we don’t sell any boats right away, the good news is that we have enough work to keep the yard busy for a while.” One of the strengths of the Efinor bid was the plan to turn the 17,000-sq.m Allais workshops at the Cherbourg naval base into a multi-skilled centre. “We will be moving our Normetal subsidiary, which currently occupies a bare site at Mielles. Normetal will use three of the Allais halls for steel fabrication work. We will also move some stainless steel fabrication work to the Allais yard. These teams will contribute, along with the yard’s aluminium fabrication team, to other group projects.”
Stepping up to steel
All this will enable Efinor to expand the Allais yard’s activities to the fabrication of steel hulls in addition to its traditional aluminium-hulled boats. “We already have the skills, the welding qualifications, the procedures and the experience. For instance, some of our shipwrights are working on the FREMM frigate programme while our Cherbourg facility has delivered 400-tonne blocks to shipbuilders and Normetal previously built the hulls for two steel-hulled trawlers. Meanwhile, the Allais personnel should have no trouble applying their expertise in engine fitting, integration, marine joinery and even design work for projects calling for steel hulls, given that all of these tasks will be undertaken in house with, where necessary, the assistance of Efinor naval architects. Overall, the Allais yard offers good potential to ramp up output quite quickly.”
Determined to set a new course, Chantiers Allais plans not only to return to the French boat- and shipbuilding scene, but to go beyond crewboats and haze-grey boats by branching out into yet other sectors. Fishing boats are one option; MRE service boats another; even if MRE is growing less rapidly than anticipated. Here too, Fabrice Lepotier is happy to bide his time. “We’ll be doing some market studies in these and other areas to see what’s what. For the moment, we’re focussing on our new range of boats for the defence and maritime security sectors, or what in France is called the ‘government missions at sea’ sector. And believe me, we’ve plenty to do.”