Mance from the top deck


The Herald Business - - Cover Story -

cen­tury, was a readi­ness to in­no­vate. “Back in the 1960s, Alexan­der devel­oped light­weight alu­minium body tech­nol­ogy about 20 years be­fore its time and Dennis has al­ways been renowned for in­no­va­tive chas­sis. So putting th­ese two things to­gether gave us a big op­por­tu­nity.”

This has been ex­ploited overseas, through Alexan­der Dennis Asia Pa­cific, which builds buses in China. Last year, the com­pany bought the num­ber two body builder in Aus­tralia and the re­gion, says Robert­son, will turn over some £200m this year.

“The whole busi­ness wasn’t turn­ing that over only five years ago so we’re ex­cited about that.

“Hong Kong is by far the sin­gle big­gest success we’ve had, we are ac­tive in Malaysia and are bid­ding in Sin­ga­pore. We’re num­ber one in New Zealand, which adds an­other £20m turnover, and there are pos­si­bil­i­ties in Thai­land, Viet­nam and In­done­sia, mar­kets we are too busy to get into right now.”

Robert­son was 2012 En­tre­pre­neur of the Year and en­joys shar­ing the ADL story on the En­tre­pre­neur­ial Ex­change cir­cuit. The son of a fork­lift driver, brought up in the min­ing vil­lage of Shotts, he is aware of the core val­ues of busi­ness – and the value of money.

If life is a roulette wheel, Robert­son says: “I’m not go­ing to put all my chips on one num­ber; nei­ther am I go­ing to put one chip on all 36 num­bers be­cause if you di­lute your re­sources that way you’ll never win any­thing.”

Staff en­gage­ment in the project is cru­cial: “I sub­scribe to the ethos of ev­ery­one want­ing to be part of a win­ning team and to a core work­force – there are peo­ple who have been with us for 20, 30, or 40 years – and while we have to man­age the peaks and troughs we have an obli­ga­tion to them.”

To bring on new work­ers – the com­pany, with as­sis­tance from Scot­tish En­ter­prise – has sig­nif­i­cantly in­vested in in­tro­duc­ing Op­er­a­tional Ex­cel­lence SVQ and NVQ qual­i­fica- tions and, says Robert­son, this is the sixth con­sec­u­tive year in which it has hired ap­pren­tices, plus brought in young grad­u­ate engi­neers to en­sure con­ti­nu­ity.

Robert­son has what he de­scribes as 20/20 vi­sion: to hit the £1 bil­lion turnover mark by 2020. Given the eclipse of the £0.5bn bench­mark this seems em­i­nently pos­si­ble but he ac­knowl­edges that to get to the next level the com­pany now faces dif­fer­ent chal­lenges.

“To main­tain this kind of growth will un­doubt­edly be­come more dif­fi­cult un­less wepen­e­trate new­mar­kets. We have to iden­tify those mar­kets and make sure that we don’t get car­ried away – we’ve im­proved the bal­ance sheet and delever­aged hugely but we can’t just keep do­ing more of the same and squeez­ing more out of the dish­cloth.

“We will in­vest in an HR di­rec­tor, which we haven’t had un­til now but we have to know, with a work­force of 2500, that we are mes­sag­ing con­sis­tently and that ev­ery­one is aware of the goals, ob­jec­tives, ca­reer and suc­ces­sion plan­ning.”

Robert­son’s mes­sage is a down-toearth one: core mar­kets, core prod­ucts and a strong bal­ance sheet. It’s easy to see why the in­vest­ment team is happy with the plan. And, of course, a rig­or­ous com­mit­ment to cus­tomer ser­vice. “If the guy fit­ting a seat in a bus doesn’t fit it well then he can be re­spon­si­ble for us los­ing a cus­tomer as much as the com­mer­cial di­rec­tor not pric­ing the prod­uct prop­erly or me not get­ting the frame­work of the deal right.”

It’s a code of col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity that Robert­son doesn’t shy away from. “I will give a guar­an­tee of job se­cu­rity when I get one my­self. This is a per­for­mance-driven cul­ture and the best way to guar­an­tee job se­cu­rity is to build a qual­ity prod­uct, de­liver it on time and price it at­trac­tively.

“And that’s the mes­sage I keep bang­ing on about un­til peo­ple start to glaze over.”

Colin Robert­son con­tin­ues to look for growth in North Amer­ica and the Asi­aPa­cific re­gion

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