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16 February 2023 - Wolfgang Heumer

Steady Ahead and Into Calm Waters

Maritime economy and logistics

Family business steers the historic Lloyd Werft shipyard in Bremerhaven back to its roots.

A man sitting at a table
Thorsten Rönner has bought the traditional Bremerhaven company Lloyd Werft, which is on the verge of going out of business - and wants to bring calm to the shipbuilding industry, once again in crisis. © Jörg Sarbach

165 years after it was founded, the Lloyd Werft was on the verge of collapse. "This business is part of our city" said ship-building company owner Thorsten Rönner. So, together with Kurt Zech, a construction entrepreneur and ship owner based in Bremen, he bought the company. The enterprise will return to its origins as a ship repair yard, as part of the business group run by Rönner and his brothers.

Thorsten Rönner doesn't like making big speeches and isn't eager to be in the spotlight. The 46-year-old is much happier simply getting to grips with things. Identifying opportunities, making good use of them, and most of all doing something to make it happen: these are things he learned from his father. At the start of the 1980s, Heinrich Rönner set up a steel-construction company in Bremen, starting off with only five employees. Working with his three sons, he has built up an entire company group, barely 40 years later. "Obviously, we still have a steel-construction company in our portfolio", said Thorsten Rönner when describing the company group: "But with our own engineering offices, a logistics arm and a range of conversion, repair and construction wharves, we expanded our activities long ago." Now, he and his brothers Heiner and Marcus have put the jewel in the crown of the company's evolution: the Rönner brothers joined forces with the Bremen businessman Karl Zech and bought Bremerhaven's historic Lloyd Werft dockyard, just before it was supposed to close its doors for the last time. "Isn't it just a bit crazy though, buying a company that has 300 employees but not one single order on the books? Or perhaps it isn't!", said Rönner with a laugh. Of course, it's not crazy: it's a well thought-through strategic calculation, with a bit of local pride involved too.

Lloyd Werft – a famous name in Bremerhaven, but not always a success story

The Lloyd Werft dockyard: a name that resonates in Bremerhaven. It was founded 165 years ago, in the Kaiserhafen harbour, to repair the vessels of the North German Lloyd shipping company. Years and even decades of turbulence and change followed. Working at "the Lloyd" was regarded as an honour and a career goal for hundreds of shipyard workers. However, "if you look a bit closer, there was never a continuous history of success", said Rönner, putting the historically rose-tinted view of the shipyard into perspective. Spectacular major orders such as the renovation of the legendary ocean liner "Queen Elizabeth", were followed by hard times, which cumulated in the collapse of the shipbuilders, Bremer Vulkan Verbund. In 2016, the Chinese-Malay leisure corporation Genting Hongkong purchased the shipyard, but the group it forged from this and other shipyards in Rostock, Stralsund and Wismar fell apart in 2021. Lloyd Werft was about to get liquidated. The Rönners and the Zech group swung into action. "It was high time for things to calm down", said Thorsten Rönner.

A ship in a port
The Rönners have brought together one and a half dozen shipbuilding companies. Together, the group is one of the largest providers specializing in repair and sophisticated conversion on the German coast. © Jörg Sarbach

"In a very good strategic position"

The Rönners have a proven track record of bringing calm to the turbulent ship-building industry. "Crisis" isn't a word that Thorsten Rönner likes to hear, and he's even less keen on actually saying it. Despite that, even he admits that shipbuilding can be a challenging sector, in which many aspects are distorted by the effects of international competition. For many decades, the trajectory was downwards, in Germany and in the majority of other European countries. However, Rönner is convinced that "the market has recently consolidated, and we are in a very good strategic position." For him, this is the be-all and end-all for the success of ship-building operations within the Rönner group.

In many small steps, the Rönners first brought 18 small ship-building companies together into an association and then into a company group. Acting alone, these companies would have struggled to make headway in the market. Together, they are strong, and the group is one of the largest providers of repair work and specialist conversions on the German coast. Customers come from all across the world because they appreciate the reliability of the operations in Bremerhaven und Cuxhaven and the expertise of the workforce. The Lloyd Werft shipyard will now be part of this association, as an independent specialist in repairs and conversions. "Stay with what you know" is Thorsten Rönner's motto. His efforts have already saved 250 jobs at Lloyd Werft, and there are plans to engage a further 300 workers over time to boost the core workforce.

A shipyard take-over as practical sign of local pride

This brings the Lloyd Werft shipyard back to its roots. However, Thorsten Rönner doesn't discount the possibility that, one day, new ships will be built there, like the ones that made the company famous in previous decades. Rönner already has a proven track record of large-scale projects: only a few years ago, one of the ships built by his group was the "Alexander von Humboldt II", the first new German tall ship since the keel of the Gorch Fock was laid, almost 65 years ago. The Rönner group's conversion work on the "Ostfriesland" island ferry transformed it into the first passenger ship in Germany to be fitted with an environmentally friendly LNG engine. Rönner is aware of the risks associated with this type of enterprise but, as a mechanical engineer, he's not afraid of major projects. And this is why his ethos can be summed up by: "bread comes first", in other words, repairs. "And if that goes well, we can think about the butter, i.e. construction."

A man stand in front of a claim
"Bread comes first, and if that goes well, we can think about the butter, or in this case, new constructions", says Thorsten Rönner, who also wants to preserve the Bremerhaven company for the location. © Jörg Sarbach

And that's not just merely words: Thorsten Rönner is a strategist who thinks in the long term. Taking over the Lloyd Werft shipyard wasn't just a spontaneous thought. When discussing the future of this operation, he brought a document from the past out of the archives. He'd already been having thoughts about the future of the Lloyd Werft shipyard when he held an in-house presentation on the subject in 2018, and predicted that the Genting group would withdraw from their activities in Bremerhaven in three to four years time. His prediction came true, almost to the exact day: "It was then, on this Day Zero, that we started preparing to take over the shipyard and safeguard the jobs." And when questioned about his motives for doing so, this strategically minded entrepreneur reveals another side of his character: "Our purpose is also to keep this company going, in Bremerhaven and for Bremerhaven." The fact that this form of practical local pride means a huge amount of effort and risk for him is something Thorsten Rönner simply waves away: "It's just because I enjoy working." he says.

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