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Axopar Workers Head to the Front Lines

The builder’s Ukrainian employees are leaving their jobs at facilities in Poland to return home and fight against Russia
Founding partner Jan-Erik Viitala says Axopar produces 50 percent of its boats at two facilities in northwest Poland.

Founding partner Jan-Erik Viitala says Axopar produces 50 percent of its boats at two facilities in northwest Poland.

Axopar is one of several boatbuilders that rely on Ukrainian workers in Polish facilities, along with Groupe Beneteau, Galeon, Sunreef and others. With war raging in neighboring Ukraine, Ukrainian Axopar employees have been leaving the production line to fight on the front lines of the war against Russia.

Jan-Erik Viitala, founding partner of Finland-headquartered Axopar, said the company is supporting its employees who join the war effort in any way it can. Viitala added that not only will workers’ jobs be held for them until they can return, but that the company also is in talks about how it can support employees who leave and find homes for their families fleeing to Poland.

Daniel Harding Jr., editor-in-chief of Soundings Trade Only sister magazine Power & Motoryacht, spoke with Viitala to better learn what the war in Ukraine means for Axopar and other builders.

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I understand the war in Ukraine is hitting Axopar close to home. But you’re based in Finland, correct?

Yes, we are based in Finland, and we have two headquarters here, but the majority of our production is happening at two different OEMs in Poland. And our Polish headquarters are also on the eastern border of Poland. So we have a workforce of 55 people working in Finland with logistics and daily functions. And we have our own core team in Poland of around 120 people. We also have one factory of our own building the Brabus boats in Poland.

Axopar has two locations in the northwestern part of Poland where we are producing about 50 percent of all Axopars. And then we have one location that is more on the Eastern border next to Belarus — that is our other major OEM manufacturer.

How many employees are working on Axopar boats at one time?

We are probably talking about 450 people when we calculate every step of production.

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There are Ukrainian employees from Axopar and other builders who are leaving work in Poland to fight for their homeland. Can you talk about that?

We and our OEM facilities have Ukrainian workers who have worked a long time for our company that now have been called into war duty, and they have been forced to leave their jobs and travel back to Ukraine and fight the war. So this is a very strange situation we’ve not really prepared for.

I believe that one of our OEMs is employing around 300 Ukrainians, and another OEM is employing around 70 or 80 Ukrainians. Some are women, and some are men. The men have been called back for military duty, and some of the women have wanted to leave just to be together with their family.

We are now working together with our OEMs in different regions of Poland trying to secure homesteads or temporary shelters for refugees. We’re also trying to relocate our workers’ families into Poland and find accommodations for them. We also have some of our trucks, buses and minivans driving back and forth to the Ukrainian border to pick up refugees.

Is boatbuilding continuing at this point?

We were presented with a worldwide pandemic that completely turned the whole supply chain and the ability to produce boats or any component, any machinery — anything — upside down. Today we are already at an unprecedented stage of having irregularities and problems with product supply. On top of this, we are facing [a labor] shortage in production because of people leaving to go back to Ukraine to fight the war. The situation is making things worse. As a manufacturer, we do everything in our power to really push forward so our customers will get their hands on their long-awaited boats.

The labor shortage Axopar now faces has made it a challenge to build boats, which range from 22 to 37 feet.

The labor shortage Axopar now faces has made it a challenge to build boats, which range from 22 to 37 feet.

What are you and your other OEMs doing to support the workers who return to Ukraine to fight?

We’ll welcome them back with open arms when the chance comes that they can come back. Also, if there is any way we can help any of the workers to relocate their families, we will be open to help. We are already helping, but it’s still … too early to say yet what will happen. If there are opportunities to help that show up in the future, we will step up and do even more.

This is my own personal opinion and doesn’t really reflect on the company, but I believe that we can help more by helping to find shelter and temporary homes for refugees in Poland, and also trying to help with transportation and getting our workers’ families to safety. If there’s a possibility for us to be more hands-on, we will take it as it presents itself. But we are a Finnish company. It’s a situation that is between Ukrainians and Russians.

What can you tell us about the people who work on the production lines?

Ukrainians are hardworking and devoted people, and they are very skilled and proud of the craftsmanship in what they do. All the Ukrainians that we have been working with, these are hardworking men and women coming over to Poland to support their families back in Ukraine.

Ukrainians are used to working in Poland, especially eastern part of Poland. They come over to Poland, and they work for a certain period of time. Then they will leave back for their families for weekends. But they are very dedicated, motivated and extremely hardworking.

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What is morale like at the factories, with colleagues now fighting a war in another country?

All of our workers are like one big, supportive family, and they support each other in any way they can. I haven’t talked to any worker on the floor yet, so I don’t have any firsthand information, but I would say that unity is something that people understand. It will still influence production because we are lacking man power at service stations.

Is there a message you want to send to American dealers and other industry stakeholders?

We’re having one of the worst wars in modern time that is influencing Europe and the world. So of course, the No. 1 thing is patience. But I also want to thank people for their understanding. We’ve had many customers that are upset, of course, for the delays that are occurring, but they also understand the situation. Every worker in our workforce is pushing each and every day to get boats out of the factory. And we are dedicated and motivated to get the boats out to our customers, especially in these troubling times where getting on the water, spending time with your families and close ones is the best gift and emotion anyone can have. 

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.

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