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Rena sinking raises port profits

Last updated 12:25 27/11/2012

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An environmental nightmare for New Zealand turned out to be heaven-sent for Port Nelson Ltd with its investment in Unimar paying off handsomely.

The Port Nelson-based offshore support services business had a trading deficit of $595,000 in the 2011 financial year. But then along came the Rena disaster. Unimar acted swiftly, took a pivotal role, and its 2012 result was a trading surplus of just under $4.3 million. During the year, the port company also lifted its share of Unimar from 25 to 44 per cent, and chairman Nick Patterson noted in the annual report that its performance had been a highlight of the 12 months.

It had "significantly inflated" the port company's surplus and helped to allow for the $12.2 million in dividends divided equally between the port's two shareholders, the Nelson City and Tasman District councils.

Unimar's other major shareholder is Taupo-based investment company Putake Ltd, with around 34 per cent.

Unimar owns and leases out the Calwell Slipway at Port Nelson, has a large engineering workshop on Vickerman St and maintains a core staff of 15. That reached 250 during the Rena response, chief executive Calum MacLean said.

Mr MacLean, a Scot who has experience of oil-related projects in Scotland and Ireland, quickly provided a salvage vessel when the Rena was wrecked on Astrolabe Reef near Tauranga on October 5 last year. He knew the owner of a big anchor-handling tug that was in Tahiti, contacted the salvors and they wanted it immediately.

"We locked it in initially for a 14-day contract but it went on for 260 days."

Unimar quickly became the New Zealand manager for the Britain-based specialist container recovery company Braemar Howells. At the peak of the work, it had 14 vessels working on retrieving the ship's containers and their spilled contents and was also organising beach cleanups.

Unimar converted a Nelson-based mussel harvester, the Tasman Challenger, into a debris recovery vessel and fitted out another boat with a specialised remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to help recover containers deeper than the 50-metre underwater limit for divers. The ROV was used to rig the containers so they could be lifted from depths of up to 90m by a crane barge, Mr MacLean said, and the work had a high success rate.

"We walked the walk rather than talk the talk. A job of that size needed some sort of lead manager and that's what we did."

It still has a fluctuating workforce of 15 to 20 working on the Rena project, depending on the weekly demand and variables such as the sea conditions, and has clocked up nearly 300,000 man-hours in a harsh, challenging environment without a single lost-time injury.

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Unimar's more likely source of regular work is in the offshore oil and minerals business, where it is set up to act as the lead "local" provider, and its jobs have included support services for one-off projects such as the unsuccessful exploratory drilling off D'Urville Island in 2010.

Nelson was an ideal base for the business to cover the South Island, Mr MacLean said.

"There was a lot of hope pinned on the D'Urville prospect; it could have turned Nelson into a different type of port - but she was dry."

Mr MacLean has previously lobbied the Government for some sort of public-private partnership to ensure a greater response capability was on hand for another maritime disaster.

He said it was ironic that Unimar had sold its specialist multi-use offshore services ship, the Marsol Pride, ahead of the Rena striking the reef. It had the ship for two years and he had been trying to get across the message that New Zealand, with its long coastline and oil and gas fields in production, lacked specialist emergency-response capability.

"They listened but they felt it was more a responsibility of the companies drilling for oil.

"Then all of a sudden the Rena hit the ground," said Mr MacLean, who has a shareholding in the company.

He speculated that Unimar might also have a role in the rebuilding of Christchurch's port, Lyttelton, which has suffered major earthquake damage.

"This industry - it's not a whole lot of small things . . . it's one big thing. You need to spend the time at the outset, you set up the framework, the prices, you set out the agreements - the high-end value stuff.

"We're always part of the solution.

"It is a high-risk game, but in business these days there's no sure thing, and it's exciting."

- Nelson

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