The building of Solvtrans, wellboat giant

Aslak Berge

“I was the one who developed all wellboat standards. That’s a fact,” says Roger Halsebakk.

The shine is glass and brushed steel. Ship owner Roger Halsebakk and his team have taken over the office of Aalesund’s clipped-wing offshore supply vessel great, Farstad. Steered from these spacious surrounds on Skansekaia quay at the entrance to Brosundet Channel is a shipping company worth billions of kroner.

But, it all began rather humbly.

“We began with an old clunker — a clinker fashioned rather than welded. Her name was Ida Våge. We called it Sølvtrans,” Halsebakk recalls.

“I was 20 years old. Came straight from the military, the Coastal Artillery at Hysnes Fort, where I got my certificate. I was a skipper, and after a while machinist and then … vegetable. I did everything from the pilothouse until 2000. I did it all that way until I had five boats,” Halsebakk says.

After a while, that grew to several boats. After acquiring the Bomlo Wellboat Service company in 2015, there was a brisk run of new-builds, and Halsebakk now controls a fleet of 21 wellboats.

In contrast to many of today’s ship owners, Halsebakk wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth: “I grew up on an island — Sandøya. I boarded a long-liner when I was 15,” he says.

His first boat, which bore the Sølvtrans name, was put to work for Aalesund trout farmer and dried-cod magnate, Anders Pedersen, of Fjordlaks fame.

“We drove for Fjordlaks for years,” Halsebakk says. Through the panoramic window, there’s the glimmer of a white façade marking Fjordlaks’s enormous processing facility. “Together with (Aas yard), we discussed the design — how I thought it should be done and how wellboats should be built.”

But wellboat operations at the start of the 90’s was a paultry business and banks were lukewarm. He didn’t get the finance for that first new boat, but that wasn’t a problem for the wealthy Pedersen who chose to build the boat himself.

“Fjordlaks built it and called it Havørn. But I saw that mistakes had been made that could be fixed. We sold the old Solvtrans to SalMar in ’94. By then, I had worked for two to three years to provide financing. I got half-a-meter of rejections from the banks. I wanted 17 million (kroner). I first got the finance in 1995. I had drawn the boat up together with (Aas yard).”

Humble beginnings
Ronja Fish was delivered on Jan., 12th, 1996. “A couple of months earlier, I had drawn up a contract for five years with Hydro Seafood in Scotland.”

And that was the wellboat industry’s infancy.

“(The Bomlo Wellboat company) started six months later. Rostein two years later,” he says. Today, Bomlo is a part of Solvtrans.

“They built … using our drawings,” Halsebakk adds.

“So, then we chartered Ronja Kristoffer. It was nearly twice the size of Ronja Fish when it was delivered in December 1997. Then came the bank hoopla. They wanted me to have more equity or a co-owner.”

He got through it with a EUR 262,000 guarantee from Aas (yard) and a private lender.

“Then I mortgaged my wife, kids and house.”

Followed closely: the movements of wellboat, Ronja Superior

Loaded up with more debt and risk, the hard-driving ship owner next hit a rogue wave: “There was an ISA (virus) crisis in Scotland. All the fish had to harvested. We got the blame for the outbreak because we had sailed with open valves and spread the infection around. That was true. There was no doubt. Scottish authorities decided they couldn’t live with it. They culled 100,000 tonnes, and running wellboat freight was banned.

“So we started a new system with Aas. We built a closed system. We contracted for three boats and a total value of 150 million kroner — without financing. We just had a verbal agreement to sort it all out later.”

“I got my first closed-system boat in 2001. I worked with Scottish officials and got the permit from them. The alternative was to take this by semi-trailer on bad roads. We got a chance to demo it, and it became a success and a Scottish standard. All transport of salmon there now happens with enclosed boats. The fish are cooled, one to two degrees every hour, so the calm down. Then, add oxygen and recirculate the water vigorously so they produce less carbon-dioxide.”

The standard
“All standards for wellboats have been developed by me. That’s a fact. One started with a rebuilt fishing boat — loaded by bailing. It was I that started the pumping and counting of biomass in 1986. Today, that’s the standard everywhere.”

With new and vastly more advanced vessels, he was ready to expand. For that, he needed more capital.

“In 2004, 2005, Pareto raised 40 million kroner in equity and secured a loan. That was the end of holding board meetings alone in my bathtub,” he says under his breath. “With that money we chartered two boats, Viking and Pioneer”.

No place to be
With that, Solvtrans was streamlined. Halsebakk left the director’s chair and contented himself by being chairman. In 2010, the shipping company listed in Oslo and raised EUR 15.7 million in fresh capital.

That’s a period Halsebakk does not look back on fondly.

“A black chapter. I was kept away from all decisions right up until a crisis meeting with Pareto, where we raised 150 million (kroner) in a stock issue. I learned a lot about it through Anita (his wife) who worked at Solvtrans. In January 2011, I came back and fought from all sides.”

He took back the reins.

Solvtrans should not have been on the Exchange, Halsebakk says: “It was no place to be. A little company in a segment people knew nothing about.”

As early as 2013, he and the company’s current shareholder and chairman contemplated delisting the company. To do it they needed help. Meanwhile, the stock plummeted before finally settling.

Enter Oaktree Capital, the US hedge fund.

“It’s been completely fantastic. Since they came in, we’ve invested over four billion (kroner). Five billion next year. They own 62 percent. I own 32 percent, and (chairman Anders Hvide) has seven percent. So, it has functioned very well.”

Is it better to be owned by a US hedge fund that to be listed on an exchange?

“For us it was. We would never have managed to build this company that way without taking that action.”

A most recent measure was chartering the world’s largest wellboat, the 116-meter-long Ronja Storm. The vessel, which costs half a billion kroner, is due for delivery in June next year.


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