When U.S. timber giant Weyerhaeuser set out to replace its aging fleet of ships, company officials hardly expected to be scrutinizing a 78-year-old shipyard in formerly communist Eastern Europe. The plucky Polish operators of Stocznia Gdynia SA weren't surprised and now they're preparing to cut metal in May for the first of seven ships specially tailored to haul logs, paper and container cargo. Once a symbol of Soviet industrial collapse, the shipbuilder on the Baltic coast has mounted a rare Western-style turnaround, combining shrewd investments with a lucrative business niche to crack world markets.
Gdynia has become a metaphor for competitive promise in a troubled region. Its full order books and profits stand out not only in post-communist Poland, but in the world's bloated shipbuilding industry. "We feel no crisis at all," Gdynia spokesman Miroslaw Piotrowski said. "We used to have problems getting contracts. Now the problem is to meet them all because we don't have enough specialists."
While many shipbuilders shave costs by offering variations on a basic hull, Gdynia invested heavily in equipment that allows it to build designs from scratch. Profit margins are lower, but the strategy has paid off. Sales climbed 25 percent last year to $500 million and profit rose 50 percent to a modest but healthy $6.8 million. The workforce has grown to 12,900 at a time when Polish unemployment tops 15 percent. The shipyard was in miserable shape after the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989. State subsidies dried up along with the traditional Soviet markets. Its rescue is attributed largely to Janusz Szlanta, who took over in 1997 and last year was named Poland's business manager of the year.