Fire truck firm on the brink

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Britain's last manufacturer of aerial ladder trucks for fire brigades is telling customers to buy from its Finnish competitor in a move heralded as the death knell for the domestic business.

Financially troubled Simon Engineering is refusing to take new orders at its Gloucester factory, where 250 jobs are at stake, and has sent at least one existing contract back.

Industry sources said the company appears to be winding down its loss- making Access UK operation so it can get a better price for the larger and healthier US division in a life-saving trade sale later this year.

One fire brigade is back in the market just two months after awarding a contract to Simon while another has been told the company will not rebuild its existing ladders.

Equipment suppliers say they have not been approached for price information that Simon would need to bid on two upcoming tenders.

Tim Redburn, Simon's finance director, admitted the company has placed a moratorium on new orders while it is trying to find a buyer. He would not deny that the business was to be closed. "I certainly wouldn't say that it will go on for ever," he said.

Simon Engineering is in dire straits, with debts of some pounds 83m. Last summer it missed a repayment deadline for pounds 48m in US loan notes. Only three years ago it raised pounds 52m from its shareholders and another pounds 38.4m from disposals. Its shares are languishing at 371/2p.

Access UK has been struggling to keep up with Bronto, a Finnish company that pioneered the use of sturdy platforms on top of telescoping hydraulic arms. Because of their strength they can be used to pump more water than conventional turntable ladders. A retreat from the market by Simon or a future owner of Access would effectively leave Bronto with a monopoly in Europe.