Interview with Mr Joseph Calleja – Palumbo General Manager
Can you tell us something about your background and why you joined the shipyard?
I joined the former Malta Drydocks way back in 1988 as a young shipwright apprentice (I barely knew what the term meant at the time) and took a four-year course in Shipbuilding, followed by two years journeyman, before joining the Shipwrights department in 1992. I was not specifically looking to get into the maritime sector at the time – it was something that just happened – but early on I decided it was the career for me. I undertook a diverse range of tasks that enabled me to apply what I had learnt – that’s what I liked doing most – involving various repairs on different types of vessels in different circumstances and scenarios and dealing with people and characters from all over the world. I later joined the Safety Department and read for a BSc Hons in Chemistry and Biology, graduating in 2008, and was first engaged by Palumbo Malta Shipyard Ltd in 2010 as a Health and Safety Manager and later that year was promoted to General Manager.
Was it an easy decision for you to remain at the shipyard after Palumbo took over?
Yes. I already possessed a private sector mentality, and working abroad, especially in the offshore sector, helped me to understand the importance of a company achieving targets and goals and working to tight deadlines. I also understood what it took to compete with other major shipyards for big projects. One needs a certain mentality to cultivate the mindset of an organisation to be able to prepare and execute projects efficiently, on budget and to the highest possible standard. This is what has helped us to become one of the best shipyards in Europe.
What would you say are the biggest differences between the shipyard when it was a government entity and under Palumbo today?
At Palumbo, our focus is very much on achieving targets as one entity – one team – in the shortest possible period of time and evolving according to the needs of the rapidly developing maritime sector. This requires continuous drive and commitment in all areas of the company. Today, we have a much better understanding of the needs of the market and how to meet those needs to maintain our position as a top shipyard.
What does it take to be a successful shipyard in the modern environment? What areas are you focusing on?
There are multiple factors. Possessing a deep understanding of a particular field is obviously important, as is the ability to invest in the sector and achieving efficiency. It is vital to remain competitive, as the bottom line is always very important for the customer, while at the same time being versatile – meaning that one is able to cater for the whole market spectrum and enter specific niches when the opportunity arises. Being a successful shipyard is very much down to the services we can offer and the skills our workforce are able to provide. Also important is research and development of innovative technologies which have to be adapted to the needs of the ’yard before being introduced and used efficiently. We must also be able to anticipate market trends and be able to prepare ourselves for ever-changing challenges and opportunities.
Have the demands from your clients changed over the years?
The demands on us have changed dramatically because our clients are also facing different pressures and expectations in today’s market. In reflecting these growing demands, one has to take into account supplies, as well as the expansion of the trade in manufactured goods, parts and components. The sea trade has been characterised by increasing vessels’ sizes which means that shipyards have had to adapt and invest in infrastructural developments and technologies to be able to cater for larger vessels together with their plants and equipment. Furthermore, in 2008 the maritime market was hit by one of the toughest ever economic crises coupled with a substantial drop in crude oil prices. Due to ensuing saturation in vessel availability, chartering day/rates dropped and therefore our clients, for obvious reasons, are keener than ever to get their vessels back into operation as quickly as possible to preserve relationships and revenue. These aspects have increased pressure on the yard to deliver a better service in a shorter time period.
Last year Palumbo completed an overhaul of the luxury Silver Cloud cruise liner in just two months. How tough was this job and were you satisfied with the results?
The conversion of the luxury expedition cruise liner MV Silver Cloud was a very challenging and exciting opportunity for us. Palumbo Malta Shipyard competed against the biggest names in the industry for this project – which was the first of its kind – and upon winning the bid dedicated a great deal of time to the planning phase due to the very specific nature of the project. Huge amounts of steel were renewed to enable the vessel to meet the requirements of the Classification Society and a high level of certification was required to ensure the ship could withstand the harsh conditions in the polar regions. The brief also involved transforming the Observation Lounge – an unobstructed high-deck area that allows passengers to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the North and South Polar regions. Meanwhile, the existing bulbous bow was removed and replaced by a new inhouse fabricated bulbous bow that was a more effective ice breaker. We carried out a similar procedure on the stern. Innovative instruments were also installed on the bow area to enable the Master of the vessel to retrieve navigational data. The client was very pleased with the outcome and we were delighted when they were able to sail the Silver Cloud away from our yard. The vessel has since been providing wonderful experiences for its passengers in sub-zero environments. All in all, it was an amazing project that was delivered on time.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your role as general manager?
Unsurprisingly, there are several. If I could mention just one, it would be the commercial challenge presented by attracting a project/vessel to our shores and seeing the yard at full occupancy. Every vessel we manage to attract gives me a boost and huge satisfaction. New contacts, past contacts and returning contacts are what give us the credibility we have earned. The task to deliver a project to the highest standards, efficiently and within budget is our daily agenda. Dealing with customers and your own personnel is not necessarily straightforward – however, I have always enjoyed the challenge of finding the best possible solutions and establishing a good clientele. It is when they return that one gains most satisfaction. I believe that having good players in the field who are able to execute an agreed plan is key to a successful outcome for a project; so a close relationship with all involved, where everyone takes responsibility for the job they undertake and pushes for the same goal, is what it’s all about. Not easy, but achievable.
What kind of interaction do you have with Palumbo’s other shipyards across Europe?
This interaction between Palumbo’s network across the Mediterranean and Atlantic is extremely important. We support one another in every aspect of the industry, be it procurement, competence, consultancy and other commercial matters. Being part of a group, rather than floating alone, is hugely beneficial. It means we can support one another in all services and this makes our Malta operation a more formidable player on the international market.
If you had to describe Antonio Palumbo to someone else, how would you describe him?
His sees his companies like an extension of his family. He’s passionate about maritime, especially the repair and building sectors, and is dedicated to his companies at all levels. He is first into the office in the morning and the last to leave, addresses staff by name, takes great delight in every vessel/project we manage to attract, always has both feet on the ground, understands the market, and has time for everyone. He is essentially a thinker with outstanding leadership skills who is determined to evolve and improve.
What are the three biggest projects Palumbo has completed this year and what’s in the pipeline?
In 2018, we took no fewer than 195 orders involving an array of engineering requirements. Apart from the intensity of drydocking works in the first three months of the year, we completed a project involving complicated high-tech engineering works: replacing the 60 tonne main propulsion shaft on a 300m container vessel and getting the vessel back to operational mode on its navigational trade route. The project involved the vessel being in drydock and also alongside our berths. During the same month, another 300m container vessel came in for hull treatment followed by a crude oil tanker on which we renewed large amounts of pipework as well as carrying out extensive repairs. We also took on the treatment of a chemical tanker – which involved rendering the tanks to industry-leading SA2.5 standards and applying a special tank paint application to enable them to take all kinds of cargo. Meanwhile, two subsequent 4367 TEU vessels – 280m long – from the same owner were docked in Dock 6 for scheduled maintenance which involved the full hydro-jetting of the entire underwater area together with boiler repairs, underwater valve overhaul, deck and engine room piping together with heating coil repairs, thruster works, steering gear repairs, and extensive stevedore damage in the cargo holds.