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NEW DEALS GIVE YARD JOBS AND STABILITY

Shipyard finds calmer water

KOMÁRNO - Sitting in a nearly empty pub in the centre of this town of 38,000 in south Slovakia, 31-year old Roman says he's finding it hard making ends meet.
"I bike, walk around the town, go to the labour office and ask for a job, but without any hope. That's how my days look. Living on social benefits of 3,100 crowns per month [$60], I've got no business having a family. I can't even support myself," he says.
'The Little Horseshoe', as the pub is known, used to be packed with some of the 1,400 workers from the town's once proud shipyard, Slovenské Lodenice Komárno (SLK). But since the firm's bankruptcy at the end of last year, Roman, a former mechanic at the shipyard, has seen the pub's customer numbers dwindle as the town's labour authorities have struggled to keep a lid on unemployment.


SLKB shipbuilder signed 500 million crowns of orders in June; its bosses believe it is on the road to recovery.
photo: TASR

KOMÁRNO - Sitting in a nearly empty pub in the centre of this town of 38,000 in south Slovakia, 31-year old Roman says he's finding it hard making ends meet.

"I bike, walk around the town, go to the labour office and ask for a job, but without any hope. That's how my days look. Living on social benefits of 3,100 crowns per month [$60], I've got no business having a family. I can't even support myself," he says.

'The Little Horseshoe', as the pub is known, used to be packed with some of the 1,400 workers from the town's once proud shipyard, Slovenské Lodenice Komárno (SLK). But since the firm's bankruptcy at the end of last year, Roman, a former mechanic at the shipyard, has seen the pub's customer numbers dwindle as the town's labour authorities have struggled to keep a lid on unemployment.

Over 1,000 people have been laid off from SLK in the past year, leaving just a few hundred working as the company is wound up by creditors.

The local labour office has managed to keep the unemployment rate in the district at the same 25% level it was one year ago, through offering seasonal work and introducing the government's public work-for-welfare scheme. Those on the scheme do little more than sweep the town's streets.

But while the present appears bleak for Roman and other former yard workers, it may be about to change.


Milan Kopčok, the former SLK general manager and present director in charge of cooperation with eastern markets for SLKB.
photo: TASR

At the start of this year, the state-run FNM privatisation agency bought the viable assets of the crumbling SLK and created Slovenské Lodenice Komárno Bratislava (SLKB). Its managers, using SLK's former production halls, promised to turn the shipyard around and build it back up to its former strength.

On June 1 they seemed to have gone part of the way to achieving that aim. SLKB signed contracts for the construction of three seagoing cargo vessels worth more than 500 million crowns ($10 million). It has also secured the completion of two ships which SLK had been working on when it folded, and is negotiating on three further deals.

Company bosses say the orders will create 300 new jobs to add to its existing 700 staff, nearly all of them to be offered to old SLK workers.

On the strength of the orders, SLKB has also secured a 30 million Deutsche mark loan from the import-export bank Eximbanka, guaranteed by the Slovak government. SLKB director Jozef Žucha calls the loan an achievement that shows how importantly the company's managers view solid financing, and says it highlights the difference between his firm and the shipyard's former owners.

"Efficient work practices and the use of project financing were closed books for former [SLK] shareholders," says Žucha. "We got the money for this loan only on the basis of these three orders. It has to be paid back in January 2002. Only when we get the ships finished will the company be afloat."

A new approach

This approach is one Žucha has impressed on SLKB's other managers. Žucha now works closely with SLK's former general manager, Milan Kopčok; he says the latter realises the decisions taken by SLK executives led to the company's fall, and is driven to make sure they aren't repeated.


Last year, SLK workers protested at lay-offs. It was later discovered that gross mismanagement at the company had precipitated huge losses.
photo: TASR

"Many things shouldn't have happened, and many decisions which were taken eventually cost time and money. If shareholders take steps that damage a company's immunity to financial trouble, the financial development of that firm is slowed considerably. This is what happened here," explained Kopčok, who is both executive director of what is left of SLK, and director in charge of cooperation with eastern markets for SLKB.

SLK first reported financial troubles during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, when it claimed that bridges bombed by the NATO forces attacking Serbia lower down the Danube River had prevented it from delivering ships to customers.

But the real problems were later found to have been due much more to management than to blocked river traffic. Even before the Kosovo conflict, the company's profits had begun a tailspin. In 1997, profits were 38.1 million crowns, but dropped to 5.9 million crowns in 1998. In 1999 SLK recorded a loss of more than 700 million crowns ($14 million).

The SLK board of directors was recalled in October 2000, and criminal proceedings were launched against some members on suspicion of asset stripping when it was revealed that the firm's liabilities of 2.5 billion crowns were far higher than its assets. The accused managers are still under investigation.

A welcome presence

Despite his connections with the old management, Kopčok's presence on the SLKB board is something Žucha welcomes, and says has helped the working of the shipyard.

"None of the old SLK representatives said 'we want to change the situation' except Kopčok. He was the only one who stayed and wanted to change things. Even now, the other managers behave as if nothing has happened," Žucha said.

"I don't know much about the yard and all its technical procedures, that's something Milan takes care of. He also knows the workers, which is very important," he added.

Kopčok is quick to praise his new boss's skills in return, pointing to Žucha's finance and business acumen as a complement to his own work. "These skills really help us speed things up," he says.

Together with the company's new financial director, Jaroslav Papp, Kopčok and Žucha work as a trio looking to keep SLKB on an even keel and win new orders.

But not everyone is satisfied. Workers at the yard are still reluctant to raise their hopes, even with the new orders. Although they are pleased with the contracts, few are willing to admit that they can see a bright new future for the Komárno shipyard.

Until SLKB brings in new work for old employees and secures jobs in the long-term for the people still working at the yard, Štefan Pupák, a 32-year old locksmith working for SLKB, says he remains unconvinced Žucha and his team have brought the yard out of troubled waters.

"Only hiring more people and signing more ship contracts will convince me that the road SLKB has decided to go down is a good one," he says.

The FNM hopes to sell off SLKB within three years.

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