Back to basics

Pictou Harbour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Besim Halef is best known in Halifax as a real-estate developer, but he’s getting back in business with what got him off the ground after he came here in 1975.

The developer behind the sprawling Bedford Commons and downtown Halifax’s Mary Ann apartment complex is taking over operations at the Pictou Shipyard as Aecon Fabco pulls out after a nearly 13-year run at the fabrication and ship repair facility.

Halef, who worked his way up the ranks in metal fabrication after moving to Nova Scotia from his native Turkey, bought the shuttered shipyard from the provincial government in 1999. He says he sees better prospects for the Pictou business compared to two fabrication plants he once operated in Dartmouth.

“The potential is better for Pictou because it’s on the water,” he says. “It has a good marine railway. That’s why I decided to get back in.”

Still, he acknowledges he’s not a shipbuilder and would prefer to find another operator to replace Aecon.

Halef says he’s in negotiations with a potential candidate. He ruled out Irving Shipbuilding, which used to operate Pictou Shipyard until shuttering the business in 2004, laying off 100 workers. He won’t say if Irving rival Davie Shipbuilding of Quebec is a contender.

Aecon Fabco, a subsidiary of Canadian construction and infrastructure heavyweight Aecon Group Inc., has run the shipyard and fabrication facility since taking over the lease from Irving in 2008.

Aecon’s senior director of corporate affairs, Nicole Court, says the company will exit over the next few months.

“While we were hopeful profitable work would pick up at our Pictou fabrication facility, unfortunately, the slowdown of work has continued over the past few years,” she says. “We are committed to helping employees with the transition and are confident that we can continue to serve our clients through our remaining fabrication locations.” The other fabrication plants are in Cambridge, Ont. and Edmonton, Alta. 

Aecon Fabco Pictou employs about 50 workers, two-thirds of whom are trades, including pipefitters, welders, and crane operators.

Aecon Fabco Pictou employs about 60 workers, many of them pipefitters, welders, and crane operators.

When Aecon first took over the lease, the plan was to do module construction for power plants and refineries, and fabricate specialty pipes.

In 2010, the company saw a potential pipeline of business in marine repair and did a $3-million repair of the marine railway and drydock, with hopes of getting the shipyard back in the shipbuilding business.

In 2011, a tug towed in the Hector, a replica of a three-masted wooden sailing ship that brought the first big wave of Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia in 1773. But the big wave of shipbuilding work didn’t materialize.

Among the shipyard’s biggest contracts under Aecon was a $22-million deal for the fabrication and assembly of a pair of five-storey high, 1,000-tonne turbines, along with the construction of a barge that was used to take them out to sea and transport them to the Bay of Fundy for installation. Nova Scotia Power parent company Emera Inc. pulled the plug on the tidal turbine project in 2019 after its British partner went bankrupt.

Over the years, the shipyard has built ships and barges and performed repairs on many vessels, including ferries, offshore craft, Canadian Coast Guard vessels, and Royal Canadian Navy ships.

“While it’s been quite a while since there’s been what I would refer to as ‘shipbuilding’ going on there” the shipyard is a big part of the history of the community and the waterfront in Pictou, says town mayor Jim Ryan. “We hate to lose that identity. I know I’m always pleased when I see a ship up on the slip down at Aecon Fabco because it tends to say that things are happening, and it talks to the identity of the community.”

Besim Halef. Photo: Submitted

Halef studied metallurgical engineering and, after graduating, joined an offshore fabrication company. When the business ran into financial trouble, he bought it out of receivership. In 1998, he launched BANC Metal Industries Ltd. with his Pictou plant and two others in Dartmouth supplying structural steel for large-scale projects throughout North America. The business employed 600 people at its peak.  

In 2005, Halef pivoted into commercial and residential real-estate development, working alongside his son, Alex Halef. The elder Halef always had in an interest in real estate, in part because his grandfather was a builder. Learn more in this story from the Halifax Magazine archives.

In addition the development of the sprawling 101-hectare Bedford Commons, Halef is behind the Mount Royale subdivision, the Trinity Harborview development project, Rockingham South, Kelly Crossing, and the ever-expanding business parks in Bayers Lake. His son heads up the residential side of the business, including the high-end, nine-storey Mary Ann apartment complex across from the new Halifax Library, and the nearby Margaretta Sister sites under construction.

The elder Halef says he’s content to operate the Pictou Shipyard for now, but would prefer someone with marine experience to lease the property.

“We want to make sure people still remain employed,” he says.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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