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The big interview: Colin Robertson, Alexander Dennis Ltd

In the first of a series of major interviews with leading players in the Scottish business community, ANTONY AKILADE meets Colin Robertson, chief executive of the largest British-owned company in the UK automotive sector

On the far horizon. the management and engineers of Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) dream of fleets of the company's trademark buses, powered entirely by electricity, purring softly through busy urban landscapes and along intercity motorways.

But if ADL is to arrive at that terminus, it will be through a programme of ongoing innovation rather than via a single technology leap.

ADL is the largest British-owned business in the UK automotive sector through its Alexander, Dennis and Plaxton marques.

The Falkirk-based firm employs 2300 people world-wide, focused on the manufacture of lightweight, fuel-efficient city buses and coaches.

In the past six years, it has tripled turnover to over £500m, despite the market suffering severe contraction due to the global recession.

The current year alone will see the UK market fall by 15-20% year-on-year as operators look to cut costs by eking out road miles from existing fleets.

In the UK, ADL commands around 45% of the market. Extending this may prove difficult as operators prefer to have fleets with a mix of coaches from more than one manufacturer, rather than rely on a single supplier.

As a result, ADL has focused on both internationalisation and innovation as strategies to sustain its growth.

Chief executive Colin Robertson has successfully grown revenue globally by building on partnerships with overseas manufacturers to extend the company's reach.

This involves ADL in the supply of both chassis and body kits from its UK plants, including Falkirk, Scarborough and Guildford, to build partners in New Zealand, North America and Hong Kong.

In Australia, where no such arrangement was possible, the company bought an iconic brand - Custom Coach - giving it access to the market.

This year, 50% of ADL's £500m revenue will come from export territories, which is a remarkable surge from just 20% five or six years ago.

On the technology front, ADL's industry-leading hybrid buses are achieving 35-40% fuel and CO2 reductions and, with 700 on the roads in the UK and Europe, they are now one of the world's leading suppliers of alternative fuel buses.

Hybrid buses use a mix of electric and diesel power and the challenge is to ensure that they can operate throughout a gruelling 18-hour work cycle daily, something which has so far eluded pure electric buses. However, ADL describes the search for the ultimate, emission-free, all-electric as a "journey rather than a destination" and is confident that its current hybrid vehicles, which can now match the performance of conventional diesel buses, represent an important stopping point on the journey.

Now it is forging ahead with a £3.2m collaborative venture with Scottish and Southern Energy, Strathclyde University, Strathclyde Passenger Transport and others to create a "virtual electric", a vehicle which will operate 70% of the time on pure electric power - and 30% of the time on hybrid technology.

Colin Robertson said: "Our 'virtual electric' will operate emission-free in crowded, inner-city environments and recharge itself via established hybrid technology while running in less populated areas. It will make a truly significant contribution towards the reduction of curb side emissions.

"As with previous ADL technology advancements, it will do what it says on the tin. Yes, we will fine tune it in co-operation with operators - but we will not be selling them lame ducks they later regret buying. Too often the advancement of technology in the British bus sector is hampered, and dragged back, by ill-conceived products that are brought to market too early, well before they are proven or anywhere near the reliability levels required."

He added: "Our 'virtual electric' will bridge the gap as we work with others to create the right heavy-duty battery solutions. It will deliver what it promises - and it will be introduced without tearing up city streets, without disrupting transport systems and without lengthy planning appeals.

"The route to the ultimate all-electric bus is still some distance away but our 'virtual electric' represents an important next step in the journey."

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