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People blame the MoD for Swan Hunter's decline, not me. But I Know better; As boss of Swan Hunter, Dutchman Jaap Kroese has experienced the highs and lows of North East industry. In an exclusive interview with GARETH DEIGHAN, he tells the story of his life on Tyneside.

Byline: GARETH DEIGHAN

IT'S hardly the surroundings you'd expect of a millionaire. But for Jaap Kroese - who arrived on Tyneside more than 12 years ago when he bought Swan Hunter for pounds 4m out of receivership - it's the place he calls home.

Mr Kroese, while he's on Tyneside, lives in a flat in the famous Wallsend yard.

Arriving at the main office you are directed to a lift. The lift is slightly broken and stutters as it ascends the levels. When you get out at the top you are greeted by a pleasant reception area and the door to the flat.

Settling down in his kitchen, against the backdrop of a window showing the remains of a once-healthy yard, Mr Kroese is relaxed and assures us we can ask anything we want.

Bespectacled and smart from a day at work, he says he has a time limit for the interview - he's flying back to Holland in a matter of hours.

But, speaking from the kitchen of his unique flat, he says he has no regrets about taking on the yard and the time he's had as boss.

"Everybody makes money out of it and the only one who lost money and lost maybe some of his pride, was me.

"The highlights for me was building the Solitaire - the biggest pipe-laying ship in the world. And you know at one stage we employed 3,000 people, within six months of buying the yard. It was night and day, Saturday, Sunday. There was never a spare moment. Plus we employed more than 200 engineers. It was massive, massive."

But he says the business started to unravel when Swans got a contract for two landing vessels as far back as 2000.

"We based the design on one built in Holland, called the Rotterdam. And that was the ship we priced.

"We didn't have any experience with the MoD. They just kept changing and changing and changing and because of the changes we had to do so much engineering.

"So before we knew it we had fallen behind. We didn't have the experience to work with the MoD and that's where it went wrong.

"I have no regrets about it.You can't go through life without making a couple of mistakes, you have to live with them. And that's what I have to do.

"We kept the yard open for 12 years, we employed lots of people, we trained 300 young apprentices, so I look back and I think it was a shame it went that way but, on the other hand, you know, it's just life, isn't it?"

Despite the yard closing under Mr Kroese's stewardship, he says he has always enjoyed good ties with the people of Tyneside.

"I've got a good relationship with the people of Tyneside. The people in Wallsend have been brilliant.

"I mean, all these years, we made a lot of noise and we only had one complaint. We dropped a plate in the middle of the night and his alarm went off.

"He called the police and the police called up and asked what happened and we said we'd dropped a plate and we said sorry.

"We said, 'Look, if we can do anything for this man, then let us know and we'll do it.' "They went to his house and they couldn't stop the alarm and then they found out it was the neighbour's alarm and they were in Tenerife!

"The alarm kept going the whole night. In the end they found the daughter, who lived up in Morpeth, and she had the keys to the house to stop the alarm. But that's the only complaint we had in 12 years.

"When I go to Wallsend, I see a lot of people who worked in the yard. People are fine with me, there is no problem.

"They are still behind me. They blame the MoD and they don't blame me, which is fine - but I know better." Now Mr Kroese divides his time between his home in Holland and his flat in the yard.

"When I first came there we, my wife and I, started looking for a house and, I mean, houses are not cheap and I think for the cost of a nice house - pounds 250,000, pounds 300,000- I could buy a compressor with that sort of money.

"There was so much asbestos in the yard. This was an office and we had to take the asbestos out and I thout, 'This is a nice place to live' and we made and apartment out of it. I used to live here full-time. Now of course, there is not a lot things going on and my wife wanted to go back to Holland because of the grandchildren so we live back in Holland."

Mr Kroese says he is looking forward to the cranes and industrial buildings being removed so that he can move on from the yard's decline.

"I can't wait for all the equipment to be gone, because then it's something behind me. "At the moment you see a crane laying here, a welding machine there. Once that's all out of the way we can start something new."

Despite North East success stories including Shepherd Offshore, DUCO and Wellstream, Mr Kroese says heavy industry, for him, has finished. And the key to the future is education.

"We need to make sure that the younger people go to school.

"If they don't go to school they go to prison, but still go to school and learn something because that's the main thing.

"I know because we had 360 apprentices and lot of them the parents had never been in work.

"For them to have the discipline to go to work every morning, I admire that because we have the whole family, everybody. Before it was the dole, no future. "But then they had to get up at 6.30am and go to work.

"The future is heavy industry is gone and now they have to go to service industry and that sort of thing. There is still a lot of opportunity because we are not in Kosovo or Afghanistan, you know. We are part of Europe so there are lots of possibilities."

And, he says, the North East has improved dramatically since he first arrived.

"It was really depressing and difficult when we first arrived. That was at a time when the old economy was going down.

"We had the trouble with the mines. It was terrible for a lot of places. It was one blow after the other. But then it started to get better. Over the past 15 years. In Tyneside it has improved tremendously and what we now need to do is to make sure that we get young people to get a good education and a job. That is what we need."

We didn't have the experience to work with the MoD and that's where it wentwrong

Jaap on...

Current business: Mr Kroese says there are currently around 200 people employed at the Swan Hunter yard - 100 of which are engineers.

"We are working on the biggest ship in the world and all together we have about 100 engineers working on it.

"It's a combination of a pipe-laying vessel and a vessel that is specially geared up to decommission all the big oil rigs in the North Sea because one time they have to come out.

"It's a massive ship. It'll keep people employed for the whole year and we are looking at some other work as well after that. It is something we want to follow up. We want to follow up on the engineering.

"We don't have to do it in the yard we can do it anywhere. Since we have the yard and the offices that is where we will do it.

Future plans:

"My plans, and I will need help and support for this, was to build offices and university space. But I can't go to a uni and say why don't you come here - the council has to do that.

"But we are working together with the council, the mayor John Harrison and MP Nick Brown to build something that is good for the community.

"My big ambition would be to build the Mauritania again. I mean, not as in a steel vessel but our of concrete.

"It would have a museum in the bottom of the hull and have offices and university on the top and it would make a tremendous nice feature because people would cycle by, walk by. It would be fantastic."

Football:

"I used to play football. Not very long, though. I wasn't what you call a team player.

"I played for Sparta Rotterdam. But I am not one of these people who, the older they get the better footballers they were.

"I was, at the time. You don't have the position any more. I was right inside forward. But that was a long time ago.

"I stopped when I was 21 and I was just started to work for the engineering company in construction because you had to work."

To watch our video interview with Jaap Kroese log on to: www.chroniclelive.co.uk

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NEW HORIZONS: Jaap Kroese in his Swan Hunter flat. He says he is looking forward to moving on to something new pictures.-andycommins
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 14, 2008
Words:1560
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