Published Tuesday, 03 April 2012
It's hard to exaggerate the achievement of Harland and Wolff in creating Titanic and her sister ships in the early 1900s. Only forty years before, the yard was still building wooden hulled vessels.
It was still in a pre-industrial era as far as ship construction was concerned.
William, later Lord, Pirrie was the key person in this expansion into more sophisticated products. He had become a partner in the Yard at the early age of 29, taking over from founders Gustav Wolff and Edward Harland.
Queen's University economic historian Prof Richard Harrison has described Pirrie as the consummate salesman.
He made it his business to understand what the shipping industry required before construction took place. Contrast that with the typical manufacturer of the times who churned out the goods and then sought buyers.
Pirrie on the other hand, anticipating modern methods, formed relationships with ship owners. He worked with them to devise vessels which would match customers' requirements in terms of speed and accommodation. In so doing he redefined the business of shipbuilding.
The approach was so successful that Harland and Wolff became the sole supplier of ships to the White Star Line.
The Yard built around seventy vessels in total for the company.
The importance of that connection cannot be underestimated. A guaranteed order book presented Harland and Wolff with a steady income stream which in turn allowed it to innovate and develop shipbuilding technology.
The decline of the Yard came according to Prof Harrison because the White Star Line was swallowed up by Cunard ending the close relationship between builder and customer, through a loss of technological leadership and Pirrie's diversion into other interests.
The loss of his nephew and obvious successor Thomas Andrews in the sinking of Titanic also played a part in eroding the power and influence of the company.
In truth, while these specific factors took the steam out of the Yard, it is a regular phenomenon in the corporate world that companies rapidly grow only to decline a few decades later.
What happened to Harland and Wolff is far from unique.