When a bird flies into the big machine halls of the Verolme shipyards on the banks of the River Maas near Rotterdam, an extraordinary thing sometimes happens. Cornelis Verolme, a short Dutchman with a face as round and red as an Edam cheese, asks his men to stop their machines so that the feathered visitor will be neither harmed nor frightened. "You see," explains nature-loving Verolme, 62, "we cannot produce that bird."
This is one of the few impossibilities that Verolme has ever admitted to. In 17 years, he has sailed out of obscurity into a position as one of the world's biggest shipbuilders. "I did it all myself." he says proudly. Verolme's ego is as big as the ocean, his shrewdness as deep, his drive as inexorable. He barks orders to associates until they are frazzled, is so restless that he rarely sits down; his first marriage ended in divorce because his wife could not keep up with his pace. He is, said one Dutch weekly, "a merchant from 1700 living in the 20th century."
Modest Proposal. Verolme has bought or built three shipyards in Holland and, expanding abroad in a pattern rare in the shipbuilding industry, three others in Ireland, Norway and Brazil. This week he arrives in Mexico to make final arrangements to build and operate a $60 million yard at Mazatlán that will construct tankers for Pemex, Mexico's national oil company. Verolme has also moved into manufacturing engines, textiles, electrical equipment, boilers and tanks. He now employs 10,000 people and has annual sales of between $90 and $130 million.
Only a few years out of technical school, Verolme began selling diesel engines for Holland's Stork Engine Works Moving up to chief engineer, he was asked, after World War II, to plan a reorganization of the company. He ended is report with: "The best reorganization would be to appoint me as your new president-director." When the directors did not agree, Verolme left to found his own engineering works. He heard of a demand for Dutch "Haagsche hopjes" candy in the U.S., raised the money to market a huge shipload, and used the profits to import diesel engines from Switzerland to equip the war-torn fleets then rebuilding everywhere.
Mountain of Sand. Not content with supplying engines, Verolme in 1950 decided to go into shipbuilding, audaciously won orders for three ships while his new wharf was still a mountain of sand. But he produced on schedule, in a few years had another shipyard, and followed that with the establishment of his yard outside Rotterdam, one of the world's biggest and most modern. Once, when he decided to launch a 26,500-ton ship into a narrow canal, thousands of Dutchmen showed up to watch the disaster. But Verolme had made laboratory tests and even practiced at home with a small model in a tub. The ship was launched without incidentand so were 59 others in his network of yards.