Bus world abuzz with acquisitions

Bus world abuzz with acquisitions

The Leyland name is back in England, while Marcopolo heads for Aus. FRANK BEETON reports

Indian truck and bus manufacturer Ashok Leyland (AL) has increased its shareholding in UK bus builder Optare Plc from 26 percent to a controlling 75,1 percent – making possible the full integration of the British concern into AL’s global bus business. The Indian company aims to increase its global footprint, expand its product portfolio, and become one of the world’s five major bus builders.

The relationship began in March 2010, when it was agreed that Ashok Leyland would purchase a 26 percent stake in Optare. The resulting transaction gave Ashok Leyland access to Optare’s mid-size and full-size city bus technology, new product developments and markets. Optare has relocated its manufacturing operations to a new plant in Yorkshire.

Readers may recall that Optare established an initial presence in the South African market during 2009 through a partnership with Randfontein-based bodybuilder Busmark 2000. This alliance recently won a contract to supply 190 Optare Solo SR midibuses to the City of Cape Town. These buses will be assembled at a new Western Cape plant. The first 60 vehicles for Cape Town’s new BRT/multi-mode transport system will be delivered by June 2012, and the remainder before the end of the year.

The Optare Group was founded in 1985, by former employees of the historic Lancashire coachbuilder Charles H Roe Ltd, after that operation was acquired, and subsequently closed down, by British Leyland. In 2005, a management buy-out separated Optare from interim owners North American Bus Industries and, since then, Optare Plc has specialised in the manufacture of a comprehensive range of integrally-constructed buses and coaches with bought-in mechanical aggregates, single and double-deck bodywork, and bus conversions for integral vans.

This is yet another example of where the heritage of Britain’s once powerful vehicle industry has found refuge in Indian ownership. Ashok Motors started out as an assembly operation for Austin cars in India in 1948. In 1955, the company’s name was changed to Ashok Leyland and the manufacture of Leyland commercial vehicles began. Following the demise of British Leyland, Ashok Leyland has been left to carry the name of Britain’s most successful commercial vehicle manufacturer long after Leyland closed its doors at home. Now the Leyland name is back in the north of England, an injection of Indian capital securing the future of a traditional British bus builder.

News of yet another global bus-building empire on the expansion trail has come from Australia. Brazilian bus manufacturer Marcopolo SA has agreed to acquire a 75 percent stake in Australia’s largest bus bodybuilder, Volgren Australia (Pty) Ltd.

Volgren was founded in 1977 and has manufacturing operations in Dandenong, Newcastle, Brisbane and Perth, and claims to hold more than 40 percent of the domestic market.

The founding Grenda family will continue to be involved in running the business, and will retain the residual 25 percent shareholding for at least three years – after which Marcopolo will have the option to complete a full takeover. This acquisition gives Marcopolo an entry point into Oceania, and access to Volgren’s specialist knowledge of the Hess Co-Bolt aluminium bus body construction technology, which has the twin benefits of light mass, and potential for recycling. The Australian market is currently running at around 2 000 units per annum, and growing at around
12 percent a year.

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