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 next year.
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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.