Former U.S. Secretary of the Navy to become chairman of a foreign naval shipbuilder

Then U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Austin E. Renforth, commanding general, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Eastern Recruiting Regions, renders a salute to then Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Richard V. Spencer aboard Beaufort, S.C., Aug 10, 2017. (Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Erin R. Ramsay/ Released)

Lawrence Specker

A former U.S. Secretary of the Navy will become chairman of Australia-based shipbuilder Austal Ltd., the parent company of Austal USA in Mobile.

Austal Ltd. announced the transition in a notice dated Thursday. It said that John Rothwell, who has been chairman of the company since founding it in 1987, is stepping down and will serve as a non-executive director. His successor will be Richard Spencer; according to the Department of Defense, Spencer served as the United States’ 76th secretary of the Navy, serving from Aug. 3, 2017, until July 23, 2019.

Austal Ltd.’s announcement said that in addition to serving as chairman of Austal Ltd., Spencer “will also join the board of Austal USA, providing important linkages between the two boards.” He will begin work on July 1.

Spencer’s Department of Defense bio says he served in the Marine Corps as a pilot flying CH-45 Sea Knight helicopters between 1976 and 1981. He later had a career in investment banking. Austal Ltd. said he had worked at banks including Goldman Sachs, Lufkin and Jenrette and Bear Stearns, and had served on the Pentagon Defense Business Board advisory panel and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel.

A U.S. Naval Institute News report said that Spencer’s appointment as Austal Ltd. chair “centers the Australian business on the U.S. naval construction subsidiary set up initially to build the aluminum Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships at its Mobile, Ala., shipyard.”

“Austal USA has expanded to include steel hull ships like the Navy’s Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue ship (T-ATS) and the Heritage-class Offshore Patrol Cutter,” the USNI News report continued. “Austal USA has also been tapped to build outsourced components for the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine program and is considered a contender for the Constellation-class frigate.”

The Austal Ltd. announcement said that Rothwell had specified four criteria for candidates: “excellent character; strong business acumen; in-depth knowledge of the US defence industrial base; and enduring relationships with the Australian and/or US defence sector.”

“Those criteria narrowed the field of candidates considerably,” he said. “Richard was at the top of the list, and I’m pleased that he was receptive to our approach.”

Spencer said he had “kept a close watch” on Austal USA’s progress.

“The position that Austal has forged in the US and Australian defence sectors in such a short period of time is incredible,” he said in the Austal Ltd. announcement. “Its expansion from a two-ship yard to a multi-program provider, including command deck modules for the United States’ nuclear submarines, has been impressive.”

The Austal Ltd. announcement said that since its founding in 1987, the company “has grown from a small, privately-owned, West Australian, commercial shipbuilder to an ASX [Australian Stock Exchange]-listed, international defence prime contractor with a multibillion-dollar orderbook, over 4,000 employees and substantial ship building operations in Australia, the United States and South East Asia.”

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