Master of the art of staying afloat: Profile: Iskandar Safa: The likely new owner of Swan Hunter is an international dealer with visions of a world empire. David Bowen hears his plans

David Bowen
Saturday 25 June 1994 23:02

THERE are certain breeds of businessman without nationality. Some are IBMers, some Ford men, others expatriate Lebanese. Iskandar Safa is among the latter. Born in Beirut of a wealthy Christian Maronite family, he went to university in the United States, business school in France, and made his fortune in the Far and Middle East. Now based in France, he is expected to announce this week that he has agreed in principle to buy Swan Hunter, one of the great names in British shipbuilding.

'Lebanon is my country,' he says. 'But after 18 years of war we don't have a complex about any other countries. I feel at home in France, the US and the UK.'

Swan Hunter's receivers said in March they expected to clinch an agreement with Safa at any moment. In mid-May, they said a deal would be signed by the end of the month. Now, it seems, they really are about to put pen to paper. In part the delay has been because bureaucratic wheels grind so slowly; but it is also clear that the Ministry of Defence, and MI6, have been looking particularly carefully at the background of Safa, his brother Akram, and their company Triacorp International.

At the end of March, Keith Hampson, a Conservative member of the Commons Select Committee for Trade and Industry, asked Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, what information the Government had concerning the 'financial propriety' of Triacorp's owners. There were also suggestions that the Safas had links with the Iraqi regime.

The idea of handing over a warship builder to a foreign company was worrying enough for some; handing it over to a company with the slightest hint of Iraqi connections was clearly impossible. Last week, MoD officials finally said they were happy for the Safas to take over the contract to finish the two frigates still in Swan's yard. They were giving them a clean bill of health.

Safa believes he was the victim of a disinformation campaign by competitors who did not want Swan Hunter to survive. But he was an easy target. Besides being from the Middle East (a matter of suspicion itself in some eyes), he has been a successful wheeler- dealer and a political go-between, playing a part in the release of French hostages. At first sight, he seems an unlikely rescuer for an elderly British shipyard. He was born 39 years ago into a family whose contracting firm had grown rich on contracts in Saudi Arabia. His father was a politician, and Safa grew up with an invaluable contact book. At 6ft 2ins, he was a powerful sportsman, and threw the discus for his country. He went to the American University in Beirut, and was apparently involved in some of the fighting: he told friends later he had been shot twice in the stomach.

At the age of 22, as war raged, he left Lebanon to become a junior civil engineer in the United States, then recrossed the Atlantic to take an MBA at the Insead business school in France.

There, a contemporary says, 'he got good exam results, which surprised us because he didn't say much. He was understated and very civilised.'

He then embarked on the career that built his fortune, becoming a middleman in the complex world of international trade.

If, for example, a Western company wanted to sell an aircraft to South Korea, the Seoul government would insist that the exporter arrange an 'offset' contract to generate balancing foreign exchange. It did not matter what the export was, or where it was going, as long as it produced enough dollars.

Safa became a specialist in arranging these deals: acting on behalf of Western groups, he fixed up civil engineering contracts in the Middle East, as well as bus and truck orders, to generate hard currency for South-east Asia. His fees soon mounted into a fortune.

Then he looked around for other opportunities. Fred Henderson, Safa's man in Britain, claims some of the credit for his move into shipbuilding.

Henderson, who worked for Swan Hunter, then for British Shipbuilders, which absorbed it, got to know Safa during the 1980s 'as a man of influence and a useful contact', and in the mid-1980s suggested ships could be a good business. Safa agreed. 'In 10 years, 90 per cent of the shipbuilding capacity in France had gone, but the market had not fallen by the same amount,' he says. 'I like the industry, and I think it has big potential.'

He settled on France, because he knew it well and because he found a suitable opportunity. In 1938, Felix Amiot had produced an advanced metal bomber, and after the war moved into metal-hulled patrol and missile boats. By the 1960s, his Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie in Cherbourg was one of the biggest producers of small ships, selling to 18 countries. After Amiot's death, CMN lost its way, and in 1987 his family put it up for sale.

Safa bid, but lost. CMN went instead to Rosario, a company that was more interested in its property assets. The shipyard was allowed to drift further, and Safa and his family finally succeeded in buying it in January 1992.

He set about finding orders for the struggling yard by digging deep into his contact book. From mid- 1993, orders started to flow, and the yard is now busy with a spread of small and medium-sized contracts. One - patrol boats for Oman - was won against competition from Swan Hunter, which had fallen into receivership in May last year. CMN was approached early on by the receivers. Safa told them he would be interested only if the yard had at least two years' orders. He was also not prepared to take on the 2,000-plus workforce.

By March this year, other potential bidders had dropped out and the yard was closer to the shape Safa wanted. After several rounds of redundancies, the workforce was close to 1,000 and due to drop to 900. 'It is now about the size of CMN. That gives you the elasticity you need.' He will take on more workers as necessary, he says, but only on limited-term contracts. But he still demanded two years' work. The receivers have put in a bid to refit a landing ship, Sir Bedivere, which - with existing frigate work - would give him his cushion. Sir Bedivere is still the key to the deal going ahead.

Safa is aware that his career as a middleman will raise eyebrows in what is a long-term business, but declares that he will take whatever view is necessary. 'I'm not only trading-minded,' he says. 'Otherwise I wouldn't be in shipbuilding.' He has a strategy too, which does not sound as though he is going for the quick buck.

Safa believes there will be a shake-up of the European shipbuilding industry, replacing its strictly national lines with more cross-border co-operation. Linking CMN with Swan Hunter would, he says, create the first international shipbuilder, providing an edge when the shake-up comes. Cherbourg would build the smaller ships, Wallsend the bigger ones, so that customers can stay with CMN as they become more ambitious.

As important, the link-up will provide political balance. 'In defence transactions, the political element is very important,' he says. 'Sometimes France will be favoured, sometimes the UK. If we have both, we have an advantage. Nobody else has both these cards.'

The shipping unions have been calling for shipyards to turn their attention to civilian vessels. They point out that demand for ships is turning up, and there is precious little capacity left in Europe. Safa is cautious. 'I would like to be able to look at civilian work,' he says,'but the labour content is much higher than in military ships.' Swan Hunter had an unhappy experience with its last civilian ship: it lost pounds 17m on an Antarctic exploration vessel. But Safa points out that CMN is building a hydrographic ship for Indonesia and does not rule out bidding for similar vessels.

Safa no longer throws the discus, but he does spend much of the morning working out. But once he arrives in the office, he does not leave until late at night. 'Working with him is slightly difficult,' Henderson says. 'Weekends don't make much difference.'

He lives in an elegant flat in Paris and spends the summer in St Tropez where, according to Henderson, 'he keeps working but in less formal dress'.

Safa says he was baffled when he found himself under attack in Britain. 'I didn't see anything consistent in the articles,' he says. 'It was small bits and pieces put together to come up with something. I was very sorry people would write things without solid grounds.'

Two specific allegations were made: that he had written cheques that had bounced, leading the Bank of France to order Triacorp to cease all financial transactions, and that Safa was some sort of frontman for the Iraqis. 'It is very possible we had bounced cheques - you know how cheques can bounce and for what reasons - but no one can say we owe a franc to anyone.' The Banque de France did not ban transactions, he says: it is not allowed to unless a company is in receivership. 'If we had anything to hide, we could have easily incorporated a new company,' he adds.

He is even more forthright about the Iraqi links. 'We have never dealt with Iraq.' He is incensed by the questions in Parliament. 'It is very easy to stand up and ask questions,' he says. 'I can ask questions about Keith Hampson.' The campaign, he says, is too dirty to work. 'I would make a very tough commercial campaign, but not like this. It makes people emotional for a very short time, but it always backfires.'

(Photograph omitted)

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