The president and chief operating officer of Austal USA, Joseph Rella, has resigned, as the builder of U.S. Navy vessels has begun a transition to new management, the company said yesterday.

Rella tendered his resignation Friday, according to a statement released by Austal USA, which builds the Navy’s Joint High Speed Vessel and the second variant of the Littoral Combat Ship. Rella has been in the position since October 2007.

Brian Leathers, chief financial officer, has been named interim president, the Mobile, Ala.-based shipbuilder said. Craig Perciavalle was named senior vice president of shipyard operations.

“This transition is a natural step,” Austal CEO Andrew Bellamy said in a statement. ”We are moving from infrastructure growth to a focus of putting this cutting-edge yard to work meeting the terms of our Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) contracts and strengthening the overall management of operations.”

Austal’s board of directors has undertaken the search for a new president who will be named in “due course,” Bellamy said.

“We will take our time picking a candidate who will best serve the company, our naval customers and the community that supports our Mobile, Alabama facility,” he said.

Austal is the Australian-based parent company of its U.S. division. Leathers said the company will remain focused on its shipbuilding programs.

“We have much to do,” he said. “Austal is under contract with the U.S. Navy to build nine Spearhead-class Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV) under a 10-ship, $1.6 billion contract, and five Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ships, four of which are part of a 10-ship, $3.5 billion contract.”