When MSR first came into being in the late Eighties, the ship repair business was born out of the shipping industry that dominated Merseyside at that time. Under its original banner, Merseyside Ship Repairers, the Bootle-based firm was set up by John Barrett to service the vessels that came to the docks from all corners of the globe, often needing maintenance after their long sea journeys.
But by the time John’s son, Paul had joined the business as an apprentice a few years later, it was already clear that the shipping industry was past its heyday, and fewer ships were in evidence on the Mersey. Paul now runs the family company, which employs 32 people across two factories in Bootle, and he realised some time ago, along with his father, that the firm needed to change its emphasis in order to survive.
“We were all aware that there were far fewer ships coming to the ports and therefore a lot less repair work was needed,” Paul explains. “If we’d just concentrated on ship repair and nothing else, we would have gone out of business a long time ago, as many of our competitors did.”
In fact, around 1990 the Barretts began to see the chance to supply steel work to industries outside shipping. Paul had become aware of a major project in Liverpool called the Mersey Estuary Pollution Alleviation Scheme (MEPAS), which involved the building of a 29 kilometre long mega-sewer to improve local sewage provision. MSR began to work with the tunnelling companies employed on the big infrastructure plan, and it found that its background in ship repair was one that translated well to the new work. The bosses began to realise that the company could have the potential to work on structural steelwork, steel fabrication and engineering in many other industry areas.
“Our men had very good and broad experience and were able to put those skills to work on a seemingly quite different job. The expertise we had was a very good fit with that kind of civil engineering work.”
One job led to another and, after about 15 years, Paul realised that the company had effectively left its shipping routes behind. The decision was made to start trading under the MSR name to avoid confusion over the business’ focus.
“We still provide ship repair to one customer as a service, but that’s more of a courtesy since it’s been a very longstanding relationship. We don’t actively seek that type of work and haven’t done for a long time. The fact is that there’s little work in that vein and then when it comes along there’s a lot of competition for it. Plus, we’re very busy with all of our plant installations, site maintenance, and infrastructure projects. It’s been a natural evolution, as we gradually became more geared towards working in these different industries.”
Today, MSR works on a vast array of major engineering projects across the country, including providing steel components for bridges in the London Olympics park, building the framework for the enormous Liverpool ONE shopping and leisure centre, as well as working with large construction firms on a multitude of housing developments. Currently, one of its biggest jobs is work on Crossrail, Europe’s largest railway and infrastructure project that is burrowing a tunnel through central London to connect Berkshire and Buckinghamshire with Essex and South East London via the centre of the capital.
The change of emphasis for the business has taken it from relying on an industry that was in decline to being at the heart of a number of sectors that are currently thriving. During the recent recession, MSR had long-running projects to which it was already committed, so it emerged from those dark financial times fairly unscathed. It even found the capacity to invest in new plant, machinery and vehicles during the downturn to improve its production processes, where some of its rivals stopped spending altogether. The result of the extra investment was cost savings for MSR of up to 30 per cent, which were duly passed on to its grateful customers.
“Most of our work comes by recommendation and word of mouth – we don’t advertise. We’re fortunate that we’ve done well, even during more difficult recent times. Our decision to rebrand and reinvent the business didn’t come from need, but because we recognised an opportunity. Had we not had that realisation early on, it’s possible we would have been forced to change out of necessity – or we might have gone under like some others we knew. But, as things are, it’s going well. The change of focus was definitely the right thing to do.”