How Freddy Shepherd has masterminded a £100m revolution on the banks of the Tyne

Over £100m has recently been invested on the River Tyne's thriving north bank, with long-standing landowners Shepherd Offshore at the heart of this activity

Freddy Shepherd at Sheherd offshore with the Technip subsea construction vessel
Freddy Shepherd at Sheherd offshore with the Technip subsea construction vessel

Out of the east window of the Shepherd Offshore boardroom a new multi-million pound development by Technip Umbilicals hogs the view, whilst the manufacturer’s older carousels encroach the boundary fence, just yards away.

Across the boardroom to the west window - past the photos of Her Majesty and the numerous, and prominent displays of the company motto - the huge pipe reels of GE Oil & Gas fill the view.

As Shepherd Offshore founders Freddy and Bruce Shepherd elaborate further on their plans for the north bank of the Tyne, one keenly senses the essence of that omnipresent company ethos – Some people want it to happen, Some people wish it would happen, Others make it happen.

The Shepherd Offshore HQ sits at the centre of a hub of North East manufacturing innovation, the physical and spiritual home of the region’s world-leading subsea industry.

One of the many photos hanging in the boardroom, on Rendle Road just off Wincomblee Road, Walker, depicts the state of dereliction of the former Walker naval yard before Shepherds were awarded the contract to develop and manage the site in 1986.

Now known as the Offshore Technology Park (OTP) it has been transformed in the last 28 years and now provides work for over 2,000 people.

Freddy Shepherd, the former chairman of Newcastle United FC, said: “With the facilities we already had, and the naval yard land, we were in a position to develop the riverside further.

“The deep water quays and cranes from the dockyard meant it was a superb facility for the subsea oil and gas industries.”

One of the first companies to locate there; Duco, now known as Technip Umbilicals, is one of the region’s most successful manufacturers, employing over 500 people in Walker.

As well as its main manufacturing plant the company also has a further four locations on the OTP or nearby, including the new vertical-helix steel umbilical plant, and its relatively new technology centre on Malaya Drive, which was built by Shepherd Offshore.

The Technip subsea construction vessel at Shepherd Offshore
The Technip subsea construction vessel at Shepherd Offshore
 

The second major OTP tenant is GE Oil & Gas, formerly Wellstream, which employs over 600 people and is expanding rapidly with a new a new facility due to open on land nearby – again owned by Shepherd Offshore.

With no space left on the Offshore Technology Park the Shepherd brothers are well under way with their development of a second piece of north bank real estate.

In 2008 Shepherd Offshore acquired the former Neptune shipyard, next door to the Offshore Technology Park.

The last ship had sailed from the yard decades earlier, it was then used for some North Sea offshore platform fabrication and had lain unused for 20 years, before the Shepherds secured the property from Newcastle City Council.

Following £60m of investment the Neptune Energy Park (NEP) is now a clean 80-acre site, with 1,000m of operational deep water quay and a 218m-long dry dock facility.

Freddy Shepherd added: “It’s an Enterprise Zone which means 100% capital allowances are available to any company located on the NEP.”

The latest arrival has been Fraser Hydraulics Power which has moved into a new 28,000 sq ft unit. It designs, manufacture and installs electro-hydraulic systems for the subsea, marine and offshore industries.

US firm Clipper had been earmarked as its first tenant, with Shepherd Offshore constructing a 52,500 sqft facility for the assembly of wind turbines but the company withdrew from the UK wind industry.

It was then used as a temporary home for the subsea vehicle maker SMD and has now been taken over by GE Oil & Gas as a research and development facility to supplement its existing factory on the OTP.

The NEP’s largest building of 86,000 sq ft is occupied by Bridon International, a world-leading North East company with a portfolio of wire and fibre ropes, for a variety of industrial uses including the oil and gas and marine sectors. Reels of up to 700 tonnes are produced and loaded from this facility.

Freddy Shepherd
Freddy Shepherd
 

Work has recently begun on the Neptune National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering. This two-acre facility will be the first of its kind in the UK, bringing together industry and academia to create a world-class engineering research facility and help maintain the region’s world-leading position in subsea sector.

The NEP is now over half full and Shepherd Offshore is currently in talks with major international subsea companies interested in taking a 50,000sq ft site which will leave a further 40 acres for development.

“We are talking to US, Brazilian and Italian companies,” explained Bruce Shepherd, whilst declining to elaborate further.

The remediation work undertaken by Shepherd Offshore has included removing a mountain of silt from the riverbed to allow deep-hulled vessels to berth alongside.

The next phase involves the arrival of a new £6m crawler crane which at 4,800 tonnes will be able to lift 700 tonnes to the centre of the river. It is believed to be one the largest of its kind in Europe.

This will be sited next to the NEP’s dry dock – where the Ark Royal was built – and will soon become home to one of the UK’s largest underwater testing tanks.

The tank will take up a quarter of the dry dock’s length and is earmarked for use testing subsea equipment, some of which will be developed at the nearby Neptune National Centre for Subsea Engineering.

“We were quick to see the changes taking place in the North Sea oil and gas industry, with the smaller fields being opened up, and tailored our strategy to support the North East’s world-leading subsea companies.

“The technology conceived and made here on Tyneside is now in demand across the world,” explained Bruce.

As we drive past the former Clipper facility in Freddy Shepherd’s high-end Range Rover, on a tour of its riverside facilities, he says: “Despite the setbacks we still see potential opportunities in the renewables industry.

“All of the turbines in the North Sea have being built overseas and while it’s good to see Siemens coming to Hull, it’s still very important to increase UK content.

“We cannot have an industry where everything is manufactured abroad. We need to have these facilities in the UK. We have excellent service levels, we can supply all the support services and the specialist skills of the workers on the Tyne cannot be matched elsewhere in the world.”

The Technip subsea construction vessel
The Technip subsea construction vessel
 

The eastern end of the NEP borders the former Swan Hunters shipyard, which looks shabby in relation to its developing neighbour, and was being used as a location for the filming of the hit BBC detective drama Vera on the day of my tour.

North Tyneside Council has secured £26m of funding and hopes to start on some of the infrastructure works at Swans before Christmas and Shepherd Offshore are working with the council to speed up the development of the 34 acre site.

Freddy Shepherd said: “There will be new pedestrian and vehicle accesses between Neptune Energy Park and Swans and these will be vital for the further development of the river and the booming energy sector.

“We are working with the council and hope to see some progress over the next few years. It needs to come on quickly as there is going to be a need for lots more capacity.The new Mayor Norma Redfearn has a ‘can do’ attitude to making progress on the site and we have noticed a change in the council’s approach.

“With two miles of river frontage, we are the largest private landowner on the north bank of the river and we are hopeful we will be able to do something alongside the council.”

A couple of hundred miles further north – and too much of a diversion for our short tour – Freddy Shepherd talked enthusiastically about the potential for its 150-acre site, near Dunfermline on the north bank of the Firth of Forth

Built in the late 1990s at a cost of around £200m, the former Hyundai factory which never opened due to the collapse of the global microchip market, consists of 180,000 sq ft of manufacturing and office facilities,

“We are looking to attract energy-related business but there’s potential for educational facilities and some retail, and we are currently preparing the site for development,” said Freddy.

Back on Tyneside, Shepherd Offshore has secured an eight-acre parcel of land which adjoins the Segedunum Roman Fort tourist attraction, Swan Hunter’s and the NEP and nearby the Shepherds have also taken on the development of the now boarded-up site of the three-storey, Edwardian red brick Wincomblee workshops.

“That used to the head office of the Armstrong Whitworth shipyard and was sited so the bosses could to see all nine of their slipways along the river,” explained Freddy.

As we head back to Rendle Road, it’s hard not to be impressed by the buzzing hive of industrial activity the Shepherds have nurtured over the last 30 years.

Freddy muses: “This is a quiet industry, and it doesn’t need to promote itself. With the shipping industry, everyone knew it was there, but most people don’t even know this subsea industry exists.

“It is now a major employer both here, and across the region, and continues to grow rapidly.”

In many ways the North East has Shepherd Offshore to thank for helping to make it happen.

Follow Peter McCusker on Twitter @mccusker60

Technip subsea construction vessel
Technip subsea construction vessel
 

Shepherd Offshore is expecting to see the total number of ships dock at its Offshore Technology Park increase to 200 this year – a rise of over 50% in the last few years.

In recent weeks a large vessel owned by Technip docked to load the subsea umbilicals produces at its quayside Newcastle plant for transfer to a North Sea oil and gas project.

Technip’s North Sea Atlantic is one of its most recent additions to its fleet and one of the larger vessels to have arrived at the Offshore Technology Park so far this year.

The North Sea Atlantic can house 120 people. It is a multi-purpose vessel capable of undertaking pipelay, subsea construction and inspection repair and maintenance projects.

It includes a helicopter launch pad and remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) launch facilities.

Freddy Shepherd said: “We expect to see a similar level of activity at the Neptune Energy Park and this demonstrates the current strength of the North East’s offshore and subsea industries.”

The Offshore Technology Park has 800 meter quay frontage and has 325 tonne and 40-tonne hammerhead cranes for lifting shipping cargo.

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