PAS 68 specification doesn't mean a lot to most people, but to Gavin Hepburn, the MD of ATG Access, it’s proved to be central to his business’s success. The specification is the de facto impact test standard for hostile vehicle mitigation - or vehicle borne attacks - and is used to assess the strength of terror prevention bollards.
ATG in Brief
HQ: Haydock, Merseyside
Turnover: £17.5 turnover (unaudited)
Sadly it’s become an increasingly common requirement for new building projects to have anti-terror defenses in the form of high security bollards, barriers or blockers. But this has meant big business for the companies that build them, both at home and abroad.
ATG started developing manual bollards for traffic control and crime prevention in 1991. Other than increasing the amount of automation seen within its products, its business model remained largely unchanged over the next 13 years and by 2004 it was turning over around £3 million.
But in 2005 following a series of high profile terror attacks that included 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings, the British government changed its policy to promote infrastructure that was protected against attack.
Formerly, the market for high security consisted of a few overseas embassies and a smattering of critical domestic buildings. But following the changes anything from airports, train stations, football stadiums and increasingly data centres could all potentially be required to install anti-terror defences.
'There really was a new market born out of it,' says Hepburn, explaining ATG’s opportunistic entry to the emerging sector.
The company was approached by the government to develop bollards designed to achieve the new crash test specification (PAS 68) that was introduced under the reforms. After six months of testing, these products were then recommended (by government) to the architects, local governments and contractors tasked with installing the new security.
Four fifths of ATG’s business is now focused on making anti-terror defenses - the remaining 20% is still focused on traffic control and a growing rental market for temporary defences.
Turnover is nearly £18 million and its products now protect a number of high profile buildings around the world including London Bridge Station, Burnley Football Club’s Turf Moor stadium and Mapletree Business City in Singapore.
Protecting the Emirates
Niche it may be, but the British high security bollard has proved to be a valuable export.
The UK's lamentably long history of facing threats mean that Britain has emerged as a global leader in high security, which Hepburn says has caused growing international demand for security products that carry the British specification.
ATG started exporting in 2007 and now 60% of its sales come from abroad. It ships to up to 40 countries a year in Europe, North America, South East Asia and Oceania - but the Middle East has emerged as its biggest destination, accounting for 35% of revenues.
'The difference in the Middle East is the scale of the projects,' says Hepburn, highlighting that the Hamad International Airport in Doha cost $17 billion alone. ‘So if you can get specified and sell successfully into some of the big projects out there then there are some huge opportunities, even for businesses within such a niche industry.’
However, while the region continues to offer a growing opportunity, there can be some cultural teething problems for British exporters.
'It can take a long time to make a decision to purchase, but once they do they expect the products very quickly,’ explains Hepburn.
For ATG, the typical gestation period for orders to the Middle East is between 18-24 months, compared to the UK’s 6-9 month average. Indeed, to help alleviate the long lead times that come with high security specification, the company has built a network of local manufacturing partners in Abu Dhabi, Singapore and in the States to reduce time and costs - a factory in Haydock serves the domestic and European market.
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Politically the Middle East can also be problematic, which ATG found out the hard way. Despite manufacturing in the UAE, Qatar has typically been one of ATG’s strongest Middle Eastern markets. But when the Qatar diplomatic crisis erupted in 2017 the company found itself stuck in the middle of two opposing sides. The blockade and embargo meant that it ATG was unable to ship goods to the Qatari customer, and therefore unable to pay the Abu Dhabi manufacturer.
Eventually it was able to get around the problem by rerouting the shipments via the UK - but it added months delay and unexpected costs to the whole process.
ATG is aiming to break above £20 million in turnover by the end of this year and has been moving to increase its presence in Europe after the 2016 drop in oil prices saw some of the company’s Middle Eastern projects slow down.
Brexit of course is adding uncertainty to the final nature of the company’s European ventures, but as Hepburn says with the sector’s long lead times at least it has time to adapt whatever the outcome.
A firm remainer, he is nonetheless confident that British businesses will continue to find plenty of opportunities on a global scale.
‘I think people can forget how much so many countries around the world look up to great Britain and its standards, its engineering and its institutions. To go out as a British company still actually has a value and I'm not sure enough companies take advantage of that.’
Header: courtesy of ATG Access