HAVING spent all of his working life south of the border, Scots-born Bob Cleland is glad to be back in Glasgow, and a new training programme to be launched by his company is set to introduce hundreds more engineers from around the world to the west of Scotland.

Under chief executive Cleland's leadership, Howden Group is setting up an academy to train mechanical engineers in the practical aspects of customising the fans, heat exchangers and compressors made by the Scottish-headquartered group for its global client base. The academy, which will be run in conjunction with a local university, is expected to admit its first class of graduates from Howden operations across five continents by the end of this year.

Cleland said the establishment of the Howden Academy, which was agreed with parent company Charter in a recent five-year strategy review, was being driven by a lack of experienced engineers. Following years of cost-cutting across all parts of the industry, Howden and others are now finding it difficult to recruit appropriate talent.

"The number of graduate engineers has been reducing throughout the world, apart from maybe China and India," said Cleland, who believes engineering is stigmatised by the inaccurate perception that it is a declining industry.

"Things have changed, but they haven't changed fast enough."

At a cost of about £500,000 per year, Howden Academy expects to train "several hundred" students in its first five years of operation. A steering committee is currently talking to local universities to gauge their interest, while half-a-dozen recently retired engineers from Howden are developing the coursework.

Now aged 60, Cleland took over the top post at Howden in 1999, two years after the formerly publicly-listed group was taken over by Charter. Soon after, Howden began a £20m restructuring that saw the company withdraw from certain non-core businesses, with the subsequent loss of one-quarter of its 4000 employees throughout the world.

"Luckily, at the end of that period, the power market across the world began to take off, driven by China," Cleland said.

He takes the 11-hour flight to China four or five times a year to keep tabs on progress at Howden Hua, the joint venture operation in Beijing that employs 750 of the group's global workforce of roughly 3500. The benefits of the decision to establish the operation, which is 70%-owned by Howden, have been impressive.

In 2006 - the latest full financial year for which figures are available - Howden sold £150m into China, including £115m of product made in that country. Howden's Chinese market, which has more than trebled in value since 2004, accounted for more than one-third of the group's total £430m of turnover in 2006.

Cleland said the growth had been driven by China's massive demand for new sources of power generation, the main market served by Howden in that country.

In the year 2006-07, China added about 125 gigawatts of power generating capacity, bringing its total annual output to 640 gigawatts. By comparison, the UK's total power output is about 80 gigawatts.

"We are now looking to grow our after-market in China," Cleland said, referring to maintenance work done on fans and heaters that have been in service for several years.

"The market is easing in China, because capacity is catching up with demand."

With this in mind, Howden opened new sales and engineering offices in India and Russia last year, with the aim of capitalising on growing petrochemical operations in those areas.

"We will also open in the Middle East some time in the next year," Cleland said.

"We have been through the negative stuff of cutting jobs and cutting costs, and now it is all about growth."

Cleland attended Hamilton Academy before going on to Glasgow University to study Maths and Physics. Soon after graduation he moved to Sheffield to start his career with British Steel, and stayed based in various parts of England, latterly joining Howden as chief operating officer in 1998.

At that time, some of Howden's executives worked out of a central office near Heathrow, while the previous chief executive was based in New Hampshire in the US. Cleland, who worked for Howden in Oxford, took up the chief executive's role a year later and effectively switched the emphasis of head office functions to Oxford.

In 2004, the decision was made to return Howden's headquarters permanently to its Scottish roots in Renfrew on the outskirts of Glasgow. This is the site where the original business was founded in 1854 by James Howden, a 22-year-old Scot who made boilers and steam engines for the marine industry.

"I have moved back to Glasgow and I love it," said Cleland, a running enthusiast who says he can get to work by foot from his home in Glasgow in 55 minutes. "It is great.

"Our lease was running out in Oxford, and it seemed the right thing to do on the company's 150th anniversary."

Cleland said that in addition to new office openings, Howden would also invest in updating its Scottish headquarters in the coming year. The group, which sells into 100 countries around the world, will also be looking to step up acquisition activity during the next 12 months.

Although Howden made a number of purchases in the first part of the 1990s - the result of an ill-fated decision to diversify into air conditioning for offices during the dot.com boom - it has made only one significant acquisition since being taken over by Charter in 1997. This was the re-purchase last year of a 51% stake in its former Howden Compressors subsidiary, which was originally sold to Carrier Corporation of the US in 1998.

"Bolt-on acquisitions are definitely on the agenda," said Cleland, who remains relatively calm about the possible impact of a continuing global credit crunch on Howden's recent growth.

"We are driven by levels of fixed capital investment, so we are not so much linked to short-term GDP growth," he said.