By Mark Cardwell

To hear Denise Verreault tell it, business owners face a stark option in life: work daily to improve and upgrade their operations and offerings, or remain idle and perish, which is why the intrepid Quebec entrepreneur is spending a lot of time and energy trying to drum up government support for a $43-million expansion project that she says is critical to the future of her family’s shipyard. The project aims to double the width and add 100 feet in length to the drydock at the company’s operations in Les Méchins, a small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Quebec that is strategically located on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. “Ships are getting wider and our market is shrinking,” said Verreault, President and Chief Executive Officer of Groupe Verreault. “We need this project to move forward or we risk getting left behind.”

According to Verreault, the proposed expansion would give her shipyard the largest drydock for commercial ships on the entire East Coast of North America, which would enable the yard to accommodate ships of almost any size, including the New Panamax vessels. It would also allow the yard to take Canadian-flagged vessels that now go to Europe to go into drydock. “That would help to keep money and jobs in Canada,” noted Verreault. She added that she has received “many letters of intent” from Canadian shipping companies, stating their intention to use the facility if and when it gets built.

Those letters, she said, are part of a detailed business plan that her company put together last year with the help of international engineering and environmental consulting firm Royal Haskoning. Verreault has submitted the plan to both the provincial and federal governments in an effort to drum up financial support. She also has hired a consultant who is working full time in an effort to galvanize local and regional support. “This project is big not only for our business but for our region, the province – even the country,” she told Canadian Sailings in a telephone interview in late April. The project, she noted, would result in the creation of 171 additional full time jobs at the shipyard, which is located in an area with chronic double-digit unemployment. Such a big drydock, she added, would also be “a strategic asset” for Canada. “This is a positive project in every regard,” said Verreault. “And it’s not ambitious: the survival of our company is at stake. We are either going to grow or die.”

In order to carry out the project, however, Verreault said her company wants and needs several million dollars in public funding. “We could start the expansion work tomorrow,” she said. “But we require a commitment from government beforehand.” She added that her company, which her father founded 57 years ago, has lengthened its drydock five times since it opened in 1982. “We paid for all of that work from our own pockets,” said Verreault. “But now we need help from government to widen it.” She added, however, that she has been waiting for news from both levels of government for several months. “We’re hoping to hear something soon,” said Verreault. “And everyone hopes it will be positive.”

In the meantime, she added, the yard’s approximately 200 full time employees have been busy carrying out a complete range of repair and maintenance services on tankers, freighters, ferries, lakers, cruise ships, fish and factory vessels and offshore supply vessels. Recent visitors to the yard’s drydock include Coastal Shipping’s Alsterstern, CSL’s Cedarglen, Fednav’s Umiak I, and the Trans-Saint-Laurent ferry that runs between nearby Rivière du Loup and St. Siméon. In addition to repairs and shipbuilding, the Verreault yard’s order book has included several vessel conversion projects over the past several years. One such project was the conversion of C.S. Agile, a semi-submersible submarine carrier into a cable and fiber optic-laying vessel.

The yard has also carried out container modifications for various clients, notably the federal government and the Cirque du Soleil. For the President of Rigel Shipping, which manages a fleet of three double-hulled, multi-grade cargo flexible, ice-strengthened chemical/oil tankers that are owned by Groupe Desgagnés, Verreault’s strategic location on one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes is a major consideration when he’s shopping around for drydock repairs in Canada. “If we’re going by, we don’t have to pay repositioning costs,” said Brian Ritchie. He added that, in addition to offering reasonable payment terms, Verreault also offers competitive pricing. “They listen (and) there is always room and a willingness to negotiate,” Ritchie said from his office in Shediac, N.B. “At the end of the day, we end with a cost that we find reasonable.”

According to Verreault, the key to her company’s ability to compete – and its success in remaining busy, notably with repeat business from Canada’s biggest and best shipping companies – is making incremental improvements on everything from production processes to training and safety. “We try to get opinions from every guy in the yard (and) make changes based on those comments,” said Verreault. Many of those opinions, she added, come during the lunch she shares every two weeks with a half-dozen employees in the company’s Board room. “The guys are selected from the various areas of production (and) and we order lunch in for them,” explained Verreault. “I love these exchanges. They see things management doesn’t see, and they like an opportunity to be heard, to tell the boss directly what’s on their mind.” She credits those lunches with several small changes that have improved every aspect of operations on the yard over the years. “I look at it like putting a dollar a day in a piggy bank,” said Verreault, who runs the company’s operations with the help of her husband, Richard Beaupré. “You won’t have a lot at the end of one day. But at the end of a year, you’ve got $365.

“That’s how you have to think when you’re in business,” she added. “What you do today has an impact on tomorrow. And if you don’t keep thinking about tomorrow and trying to improve and work towards it every day, you aren’t moving forward – you’re falling behind.”