BUSES are becoming big business again. The Falkirk firm of Walter

Alexander confirmed two more contracts worth over #15m for the Far East

yesterday, which effectively means it is sold out until the middle of

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next year.

This is a dramatic turnround from a year ago, when 500 employees were

on a three-day week. Now 100 more have already been recruited and chief

executive Ian Galloway says that for the last 3[1/2] months they have

been taking on everyone they could find with the necessary skills.

Although only exporting buses for 15 years, Alexander is now reckoned

to be Britain's leader in this field. The current order book stands at

over #30m and the company is working flat out on bus bodies, as well as

investing heavily to increase capacity and add computerised plant.

The strong export demand, won against stiff competition from other UK

firms, has resulted from a major effort to expand the market. Mr

Galloway said this had largely been directed to sales and product

development, with much more emphasis on customer-led design.

''Things are going extremely well, with orders at the highest level

for some time,'' he told me, but emphasised that the majority of the new

business was exports.

''The domestic market stopped almost completely last year and it is

still weak, although we can see just a few signs of recovery.'' An

example of that was a #4.5m order from Grampian's GRT Holdings last week

for 36 single-deck and 18 midbuses.

The latest export orders are for 200 double-decker bus kits for

assembly in Singapore, and 85 luxury air-conditioned double-deckers for

Hong Kong. Delivery is scheduled to start early next year.

Alexander is midway through another Hong Kong order for 50

double-deckers. And already this year it has exported 140 buses. It is

currently building ''Peoplemovers'' for Honolulu, similar to those made

for Atlanta and Miami airports.

The company's Belfast plant has also filled its order book for the

first half of next year, with Ulster Bus, Bus Eirean, and Dublin Bus all

placing significant business. Up to 40 jobs will be added by January.

All of which is good news for the institutions which backed management

in a buy-out two years ago. The former conglomerate, for so long a

private company under family control, went public in 1987 having added

Slumberdown and DIY distribution to its interests to diversify from

the-then depressed core coachbuilding activities.

Mr Galloway acknowledged yesterday that a return to market was

intended at some stage, but indicated this was not likely in the next

few months. ''Perhaps one or two years from now,'' he said. ''We clearly

need to get our heads down and increase productive capacity first.''

He is, however, encouraged by the higher profile bus companies are

currently getting, citing Stagecoach, Trinity Holdings, and National

Express as evidence that the sector was looking more attractive

generally to the City.

Admitting that Alexander had had ''the odd sticky month'', Mr Galloway

was able to add that nevertheless it had not had an unprofitable one.

Sales are expected to be around #33m this year and #45m next, which

could then signal an early flotation.