Earlier this month, Brian Thomson took on his new role as Managing Director of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company.
He spoke exclusively to the Isle of Man Examiner’s Workweek about their new ship, rates and company pride.
“My aspiration, and the aspiration of the board of directors, is to give the public Isle of Man a business they can be proud of because, in essence, they own it: it’s the people’s business,” Mr Thomson said.
This is not a bad mission statement for a company so vital to the island’s economy, so intimately linked to its history.
On June 30, 1830, the Steam Packet ship, Mona’s Isle – newly built at a cost of £ 7,250 – sailed from Douglas to Liverpool on her first voyage.
In doing so, he launched the tourism industry and changed the economic fortunes of the Isle of Man.
By 1912, the company operated 14 steam liners and one freighter, carrying over half a million visitors to the island each year between late May and late September.
In addition to Liverpool, they also operated ferry services to and from Ardrossan, Belfast, Dublin, Whitehaven and Fleetwood and day trips to Warrenpoint, Llandudno and Stranraer.
A newspaper editorial described the company’s liners as “the largest and most renowned fleet that has ever existed”.
During the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, the Steam Packet passenger ships recovered 24,000 Allied soldiers and sent them back to England.
Three of the company’s ships were sunk with the loss of 24 crew members.
Things are very different now, of course.
The Steam Packet has far fewer ships and a fraction of the number of passengers, but its importance to the island has not diminished.
For the past year and a half, during all of the Covid restrictions and lockdowns, the company has provided a lifeline service.
Referring to the fact that the company is now also government owned, Mr Thomson said: “I think if we had been privately owned we would not have been able to take advantage of the service we provided.
“The crew over the past year during Covid have been absolutely amazing in keeping things going as they did. I know they got bad press about it and I think people have forgotten the work they did. They all deserve a medal.
Going forward, Thomson sees further advantages in being state-owned.
He said, “When it was in another jurisdiction the profits would disappear there whereas now when we come back to profitability it would stay on the island which I think is extremely valuable and I think I – even and the board of directors are certainly seeing a time in the future when we can become profitable again.
“Reservations are increasing, people want to travel and I think there is an element of tourism that also wants to come to the island.”
With the uncertainty of Covid far from over, it’s a steep hill to climb.
The Steam Packet recorded losses of £ 10.5million in 2020, mainly linked to the dramatic drop in passenger revenue.
The government recently announced a new stake in the £ 5million company.
Mr Thomson said: “This will allow us to meet our short-term financial goals, including the Manxman project.”
A naval architect by profession, Mr. Thomson is eminently qualified to oversee the design and construction of the island’s new flagship vessel which is currently reaching the end of the design phase.
This is the most critical phase of the project – an issue that costs £ 1 to fix on paper can cost £ 100 to fix at the construction stage and maybe £ 1000 after construction.
Therefore, the planning and design stages tend to take longer than the actual construction of the vessel.
The Hyundai Mipo shipyard in South Korea, where Manxman is being built, is one of the most automated shipyards in the world.
Mr Thomson said: “Most of the designs have been produced and are in the process of being approved.
“The technology they use and the way they assemble the ships in Asia should be implemented fairly quickly, but it’s on schedule.
“We want it to be in service for the TT 2023 and obviously we want to give it time to be tested in the Irish Sea, to make sure the fittings are what we want and everything is as it is. must.”
“We want it to be fantastic and for people to say ‘Wow’ when they get on board. “
The Manxman will cost £ 78million and carry 940 passengers, compared to 639 on the Ben my Chree.
It will have much more space for freight and vehicles; 40 cabins; three large elevators for 20 people; two animal lounges plus onboard kennels and a dedicated family area with upgraded facilities for children.
Once the Manxman is in service, it is expected that the Ben will replace the MV Arrow as a backup vessel and the Manannan will continue to operate on the Liverpool route.
A recurring problem that comes up is the cost of passenger and freight fares.
Mr Thomson said: “Tariffs are negotiated annually with the Ministry of Infrastructure as part of the Marine Service Agreement. It’s not just Steam Packet providing the numbers and starting to load. Few people know it.
“But if you book a rate far enough in advance, it’s very, very good value for money. “
Mr Thomson, originally from Glasgow, arrived on the island seven years ago to work as a senior surveyor for the Isle of Man Ship Register.
He said: “It was very interesting – 400 ships to fear instead of two or three – tankers, superyachts, bulk carriers – whatever is recorded with the ship register.
“The most incredible yacht I know of was the Indian Empress which belonged to the man who owned the Kingfisher Indian beer.
“It was decorated by famous artists and the paintings were probably worth more than the yacht.”
He and his family live in Andreas.
“We absolutely love it. I had the opportunity to go elsewhere but chose to stay on the island.
“Our kids go to Andreas School and Ramsey Grammar and love both schools and I don’t think as parents we could ask for more.”
Now he’s focused on restoring some of the lost pride of yesteryear in the Isle of Man Steam Packet company.
He said: “Certainly, personally, that’s what I would like to do and it’s a huge challenge. But we are a resilient company and we will continue to do our best.
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