By Mark Cardwell

Alex Vicefield says he’s aware of the spectacular fall from public grace of Marcel Aubut, who stepped down last fall as President of the Canadian Olympic Committee amid numerous allegations of sexual and personal harassment of staff members. But Vicefield, who is CEO of Davie Canada’s parent company, Inocea Group, says the shamed Quebec City lawyer remains the right person to represent the shipyard in its contract dispute with the Quebec government over the construction costs of two high-tech ferries. “Marcel hasn’t been charged with any crimes,” Vicefield told Canadian Sailings from his home office in Monaco in late August. “The key thing for us is that he is a good communicator and he still receives a good reception from key government people.”

The shipyard’s hiring of Aubut to lobby several Quebec ministries on behalf of Davie made headlines across the province in late August. The dispute revolves around who should pay for increased costs for the construction of two $120-million sister ferries for the Société des Traversiers du Québec (STQ). The two 92-metre, LNG-powered ships are needed for year-round navigation on the Tadoussac-Baie-Sainte-Catherine route on the Saguenay Fjord.

The first ship is floating and is undergoing final outfitting. However, Davie stopped work on the second vessel in June after it failed to reach an agreement with the government-owned ferry operator over added construction costs. Davie also laid off 120 workers connected with the project at its yard in Lévis near Quebec City.

STQ cried foul, because it had just given Davie a $20 million advance for work on the second ship. “STQ deplores the negative consequences that the interruption of the work could result in, especially in terms of delivery times,” STQ’s Chief Executive Officer Jocelyn Fortier said in June. Fortier also called for mediation to help end the standoff.

According to Vicefield, the nut of the problem is the government’s refusal to recognize that the estimated price when the deal was signed in 2013 was based on basic specifications. “It was not a final price,” said Vicefield.  “When you build an expensive prototype like this you can expect added costs, especially with the specification changes that have been made.”

One of many examples, he said, was an increase from 50,000 metres of cable to 130,000. “We need to get paid for the added costs and expenses (time and material unit rates) that we have been paying ourselves,” said Vicefield. He added that Aubut is the logical choice to represent Davie because he was involved with the ferry deal from the get go, and because he is a well-connected Quebec corporate lawyer and the high-profile President of the COA since 2009. According to various news reports, Aubut will receive up to $50,000 for his upcoming efforts on behalf of Davie as a registered lobbyist.

In other Davie news, Vicefield said the shipyard is roughly halfway through its conversion of a fuel tanker into a supply ship for the Royal Canadian Navy. “We’re 40 per cent through and 7 per cent ahead of schedule,” he said.  “We’ve taken the wheelhouse off and removed the container guides (and) we’re now building a new wheelhouse and replenishment at sea equipment.”

Signed in Nov. 2015, the conversion deal was proposed to Ottawa by Davie as a speedy replacement solution after a fire put the RCN’s only supply ship out of service. The converted ship is scheduled for delivery by the end of next year.

“A new build would have taken three or four years,” said Vicefield. He added that 1,000 workers are involved with the project, which he said “is being driven more by speed of delivery than cost.” Vicefield said Davie also hopes to land more innovative vessel design deals with the federal government.

The company made news earlier this year with a pitch to buy and convert a 2012 polar icebreaker earmarked for Shell’s now-iced offshore oil and gas project for the CGC. “(The federal government) told us they don’t accept unsolicited proposals,” said Vicefield.  “But now we’re hearing that there might soon be a tender for a quicker solution than to wait 15 years for another icebreaker to be built from scratch.”

Vicefield said Davie is also hoping to find a new vocation for the second of three high-tech offshore oilfield supply ships that the company was contracted to build for Norwegian-based Cecon. The first ship was launched in late 2015 and according to Vicefield “has done really well” working in the Mediterranean, West Africa, and currently Malaysia. However Cecon went bankrupt last year, and the second ship is sitting in Lévis 75 per cent completed.

“The market for oil and gas is shot these days,” said Vicefield.  “So we decided to do a conversion design to see if the (RCN) or the (Canadian Coast Guard) may want it.”

In addition to those projects, Davie continues to solicit and receive lots of federal ship repair work. The yard has notably done four vessel life extensions for the CGC over the past two years.

The 40-year-old icebreaker Louis St. Laurent is slated for life extension in 2017. “She needs a lot of love and care,” said Vicefield. He added that the Lévis yard “is right now fully booked.  We only have half a dry dock available right now, and that will be taken up soon.”

He said the new five-year collective bargaining agreement that Davie signed in July with the union that represents the roughly 1,000 workers at the Lévis yard will buoy the company’s manufacturing flexibility and competitiveness. The deal notably enables Davie to subcontract some work and provides for more night and weekend shifts in return for a 5 per cent pay hike this year, and 2 per cent a year after that. “(The union) supports our business model, which is to sustain a stable business by outsourcing some work and keeping a store core workforce,” said Vicefield.  “That’s the only way to run a business in this industry.”