When Abeysinghe DV joined Colombo Dockyard, Sri Lanka’s oldest ship repair and engineering facility, back in 1985, it was a very different operation to the thriving yard of today. “At that time, our only real expertise was in ship repairs,” he recalls.

“That was our main focus. Shipbuilding was very much the side business; we would generally just have one or two small shipbuilding projects to improve the standards of the yard. That was the original vision of our founders; to have ship repairs as the core business and do a little shipbuilding to improve the quality and the technology.”

From trainee engineer to Manager of Design

Abeysinghe originally joined the yard as a trainee engineer and gradually worked his way up to become a workshop engineer in the ship repair section. After five years in that role, he went to Japan to study Shipbuilding and Naval Architecture for a year, sponsored by the government. This led to roles in the design engineering house, where he later progressed to Manager of Design.

“Not a lot of ships came for repairs, there weren’t many shipbuilding orders and the company was running at a loss,” Abeysinghe recalls of the difficult time. “We took out loans to build one of the biggest dry docks, Dock No.4 with a capacity of 125,000 DWT, but we were unable repay to repay the loans because of the lack of income.” However, in 1993, a tactical collaboration with Onomichi Dockyard, turned around the fortunes of the facility.

We were able to manage our yard without sacrificing or cutting any opportunities for our workers.

With Onomichi Dockyard, a Japanese firm involved in shipping since 1943, on board as majority shareholder and manager of the facility, Colombo Dockyard went about reducing waste, improving its productivity, raising its quality standards, and slowly attracting more and more ship repair business.

By 2000, the yard had paid off its loans and become a profitable concern. However, things didn’t stay rosy for long. “Another difficult year was 2003 because, all over the world, the shipbuilding and ship repair industries were struggling,” Abeysinghe says.

The following year saw a surge in the offshore industry, and this provided both a source of work and the opportunity to build further capacity in the yard. Since 2006, Colombo Dockyard has excelled in building vessels for the oil and gas, exploration and production domain.

As the yard broadened and deepened its expertise, Abeysinghe continued to be an important figure in its rise. He initially headed up the Shipbuilding and Heavy Engineering Division before taking on the COO role, and then eventually progressed to Managing Director and CEO in 2016.

Abeysinghe navigates the economic downturn

Yet another major obstacle the yard had to contend with was the economic downturn of 2009, which saw many of its competitors go bankrupt or suffer drastic staff cuts. Colombo Dockyard, however, weathered the storm. “Fortunately, we were able to manage our yard without sacrificing or cutting any opportunities for our workers.”

Today, the yard is the largest in Sri Lanka, servicing more than 200 vessels, including tankers, container carriers, bulkers, dredgers, tugs, passenger vessels and surveillance ships each year. The yard also specialises in the construction of offshore support vessels, passenger vessels, harbour tugs, workboats, coastguard vessels, crew boats, and more. It also has a broader capacity than ever before.

“We are ready to participate in engineering projects because we have three different sectors in our organisation: shipbuilding, ship repair, and heavy engineering. We want to improve the heavy engineering sector for land-based heavy steel fabrication mechanical and civil projects, so we can be competitive in that field as well.”

Abeysinghe says the yard has built up its operating standards to the point that it is now comparable to the Japanese yards that are seen as industry leaders. “I don’t think we are second to Japan anymore. Our timely delivery and the competitiveness in price is far superior to other organisations in the region.”

The high standards of the yard are reflected in a blue-chip client list, which includes the regional coastguards, and a wide range of multinational shipping companies operating worldwide.

He says the yard can’t compete with its Chinese competitors on price but offers higher quality as well as timely delivery, safety, reliability and flexibility. The latter is something the yard prides itself on. “We are flexible enough to do any project and accommodate changes,” Abeysinghe says.

Transparency over secrecy

“The yard recently won a contract with Japan’s Kokusai Cable Ship Company to build a 113-metre cable-laying vessel capable of laying both optical and power cables in the ocean bed. The secret to winning that contract was mainly due to our flexibility. Otherwise, the project could have been taken by a Japanese yard.”

Abeysinghe says the Colombo Dockyard operates with complete transparency whereas competitors favour secrecy. “We can show any of our facilities to any owner if they want to inspect them. We are happy to show our vessel repairs or ship builds in progress. But some Asian yards are completely restricted, even to the owners.”

As well as offering its transparency to partners, the yard looks to building long-term relationships instead of just temporary partnerships for a single project. “We try to maintain contacts with suppliers rather than getting a new supplier. That’s an important aspect I learned from Japan, because all the suppliers and shipyards there work together, and they don’t change their suppliers very often. Some other Asian yards always try to go for the lowest price and often change suppliers.”

Abeysinghe says the yard also benefits from working with a range of high-level, world-renowned designers. The yard’s approach is to buy the basic designs and then use the in-house designers for more complex or detailed work. “We have the flexibility to work with any ship designer,” he points out.

Having survived its share of tough times, Abeysinghe says Colombo Dockyard is determined to continue strengthening both main arms of its business to meet future challenges.

“On the ship repair side, we are focusing on competitiveness and increasing the number of vessels, as well as meeting the new regulations and controls. On the shipbuilding side, we would like to increase our capacity to work on both high-value and specialised vessels, and also enter new geographic markets.”