FORMER United States Secretary of Navy, Richard Spencer is to replace shipbuilder Austal Limited’s retiring inaugural chairman, John Rothwell.

Mr Rothwell will continue to sit on the Austal board as a non-executive director.

Mr Spencer will also join the board of Austal USA to provide a link between the two boards.

The retirement of Mr Rothwell, who has served in the position for 37 years, marks a significant milestone in the history of Austal. He founded the company in 1987 and since then Austal has grown from a small, privately-owned, West Australian, commercial shipbuilder to an ASX-listed, international defence prime contractor.

It has a multibillion-dollar orderbook, more than 4,000 employees and substantial shipbuilding operations in Australia, the United States and South East Asia.

Mr Spencer served five years with the US Marine Corps as a Naval Aviator. After leaving the defence force, he worked at several investment banks including Goldman Sachs, Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, and Bear Stearns. He also served on the Pentagon Defense Business Board advisory panel and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel. He was appointed and confirmed as Secretary of Navy from August 2017 through to November 2019.

His role as Austal Chairman began on July 1.

“The position that Austal has forged in the US and Australian defence sectors in such a short period of time is incredible,” he said.

“I have kept a close watch on the Company’s progress in the USA. 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.

“Austal’s position in the US and Australian defence industry landscape has been built on a foundation of innovation and commitment to delivering a quality product to the men and women in the US and Australian navies. These organisational traits have been driven from the top-down by John Rothwell’s leadership and strength of character and he should be incredibly proud of the Company that he has built.

“I look forward to building on that platform alongside him to drive shareholder value, though I will save the valedictory for later as he will continue to be actively involved in Austal for at least the near future.”

Mr Rothwell said having just turned 80 the time was right for him to hand over to Mr Spencer.

“The Company is on a very strong footing, but it is entering its next phase of growth as a strategic defence shipbuilder, so I remain actively involved with Austal as an ordinary board member until the transition is complete.”

Mr Rothwell owns 9.04% of Austal’s shares on issue.