Scotland/China articles

Keeping Sino-Scottish relations warm

by Website Editor, 4 December 2013

During the recent visit to China by First Minister Alex Salmond, a Wall Street Journal article made an intriguing reference to the fact that the Great Hall of the People, venue for the most high-profile Chinese political gatherings, “is even heated with Scottish boilers”. This set us on the trail for the background, and thanks to our network of friends, we recently met Alan Collins, formerly Director of Export for Cochran Boilers Ltd to hear more about this engineering success story.

Unless you are an engineer working in the energy or manufacturing sectors, you have probably never heard of Cochran. But they are, as Alan put it, “the hoover of boilers”, a brand-name that has become synonymous with the technology itself. “Many Chinese engineers showed me references to Cochran in their textbooks”, he explains. This high level of brand awareness, and more importantly the company's reputation for high quality equipment, is probably why Cochran has been supplying boilers to China for at least the past 40 years, and perhaps even longer. “I even found, in an old brochure from the 1930s, a mention of one of our boilers installed in the Customs House on the Shanghai Bund in 1938”, said Alan.

Cochran has had over a century’s experience in the design and manufacture of industrial boilers – the firm was originally set up in Birkenhead in 1878, before moving to Annan 20 years later. In his own career, Alan worked his way up from the drawing office to senior managerial posts in the company's export business. He first became directly involved with China in the early 1990s, and first visited Shanghai in 1994, “when the skyline was a forest of cranes”. Upwards of 1,000 of Cochran boilers are now successfully operating in China.

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Alan Collins with the Engineering Manager of the Peoples Great Hall and of one of the 'Wee Chieftain' boilers that supplies steam to heat the Great Hall of the People ; Alan Collins and the Cochran team in Beijing, in front of the famous image of Chairman Mao and representatives of the 56 nationalities of the People's Republic of China

He also hosted many Chinese delegations who visited the Cochran factory in Annan, including safety inspectors from the Labour Bureau, who are the regulatory authority for the import, installation and operation of all boilers in China - “a boiler is a pressure vessel, so worker safety is very important”, stresses Alan. In 1995, Cochran was the first boiler company in the world to receive the new 'Chinese Safety Quality Licence' for boilers and pressure vessels.

One very special delegation arrived at Annan in 2005, from the engineering department of the Great Hall of the People. This eventually led to the installation of three 4000kg/hr 'Wee Chieftain' boilers, probably the world's best known and most respected industrial boiler, renowned for their reliability and durability. The boilers are located in the boilerhouse which is part of the National Grand Theatre building, next to the Great Hall, supply steam for heating purposes to the theatre and the iconic political building itself.

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Alan Collins and a Chinese colleague checking the exhaust gas temperature of a Cochran 'Wee Chieftain boiler' in Beijing ; the importance of entertaining when conducting business in China - Alan Collins enjoys some local food with Mr Guo, the Cochran dealer in Beijing, and his interpreter

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The Shanghai Huanan Boiler Vessel factory in Baoshan District, Shanghai ; a typical steam boiler plant installation with imported Cochran boilers at a hotel project in Shanghai

The development of Cochran's business in China led the establishment of a marketing joint venture with the Shanghai Huanan Boiler Vessel Co., Alan with himself being seconded to Shanghai during 2006 and 2007, to manage the JV project. During his stay, he helped to market the company's products all over China, and visited cities as far afield as Dalian, Chengdu, Nanjing and Shenzhen. Major prestigious installations have included the Beijing Financial Street, the swimming pool constructed for the Beijing Olympics, several hospitals in Shanghai, and Phase 1 of the Shanghai Pudong International Airport development.

Most of the boilers sold during this period were made at the Cochran factory in Annan, although some were built at the Shanghai Huanan factory in Baoshan District, near the famous Baoshan steel mill.

The company's involvement with China was recently boosted by a three year partnership with Hong Kong and China Gas Ltd (Towngas) to upgrade industrial systems across China to make them more environmentally friendly, signed in Beijing during the recent visit by the First Minister (see this article).

But for Alan himself, his China adventure ended in late 2007. “I enjoyed it immensely”, he says, adding that although now retired, he is still in touch with many of the Chinese friends he made in Shanghai and beyond. “Long term relationships are the key to success in China”, Alan stresses. In one unusual example, whilst in Rui Jin Hospital in Shanghai for some minor treatment, he was startled to find that the doctor who was treating him had been to Annan as part of a delegation some years before, to negotiate the installation of Cochran boilers in that very hospital. Clearly, the Cochran name will be well known in China for a long time to come.