Owners of the port of Southampton's major dry docking operation, A&P, are poised for a dramatic expansion into continental Europe.

Negotiations are now at an advanced stage between the British ship repairer and conversion specialist and organisations in France aimed at clinching the take-over of the dry docks in Southampton's twin city of Le Havre in Normandy.

A&P are keen to raise their profile internationally with the group also developing links with American offshore services specialists, First Wave Marine in Houston.

If the talks in France are successful, it will mean A&P will control the Societe Industrielle de Reparation et d'Entretien Naval facilities in the French port.

David Ring, chief executive of A&P Holdings, said if the discussions with the yard, the port of Le Havre and the French government come to a positive conclusion then A&P should be running the operation by the end of the year.

"The take-over would create the opportunity for us to attract French work to a French yard,'' said Mr Ring, who is well known in and around Southampton as he was previously managing director of the aviation component company, the Hamble Group.

These moves comes as the Southampton yard, centred around the city's huge King George V dry dock in the Western Docks, is nearing completition of a lucrative three-ship contract which has kept the workforce busy during the traditionally quiet summer months.

Mike Smith, managing director of A&P Southampton, said: "This has been an important contract for us.

"We put forward a technical solution which cut down the time the ships would be withdrawn from service which impressed the vessels' owners.

"The French company has never dry-docked in the UK before but we won their confidence that they could come to Southampton get a good job.

"We have carried out a lot of steel work on the vessels and the owners are extremely pleased with the work the yard has undertaken.''

A&P Southampton, already well known for its work on cruise liners and passenger and vehicle ferries, fought off strong opposition from Poland, Holland and Germany to win the contract.

Looking ahead to next year A&P is optimistic for the future as a number of cruise ships are due for refit during 2001.

"There are some good opportunities for A&P in the next six months,'' said Mr Ring.

"The employees have been doing a smashing job for the company, people have made extraordinary efforts, and it is paying off.''

Mr Ring joined A&P Group last year taking responsibility for the overall management and development of the company.

After leaving the Hamble Group, where he worked from 1990 to 1998, he was managing director of Stewart Grand Prix Limited.