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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 August 2006, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
From white vans to war zones
By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News, Gibraltar

Vehicles parked beneath the Rock of Gibraltar
The new vehicles are stored before going to the workshop

From Gibraltar's Bufadero army complex, a clear day allows views across to the coast of North Africa.

At the height of the British military's presence, this was a fully functioning military base, home to some of the 10,000 forces stationed here.

Today, in a territory where the financial services and internet gaming are now big business, it plays a part in perhaps Gibraltar's most unlikely enterprise.

Instead of rows of troops on parade, visitors today see line upon line of gleaming white four-wheel drive vehicles which could soon be shipped off from this business centre to developing nations - or even war-torn states.

Unusual requests

They belong to a car dealership where the term "optional extras" does not mean electric windows and plush leather seats.

Customers of Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings are more likely to want oversized bull bars and ballistic blankets designed to absorb the impact of anti-personnel landmines.

They are basic vehicles that are there to do a job
Gary Summers
Workshop manager

In the shadow of the imposing Rock of Gibraltar, it supplies about 30% of all vehicles going to charities, governments, non-government organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies in the developing world.

The United Nations, UNICEF, Oxfam, Save The Children and Medecins Sans Frontieres are among its more well-known customers.

From Iraq to East Timor, Aceh to Pakistan and now Lebanon, such organisations are using four-wheel drives kitted out in workshops on a Gibraltar back street.

After beginning in the 1980s as an extra service offered by a normal Toyota dealership, supplying the aid community is now its sole business.

Selling mainly Land Cruisers, Hilux and Prado models - at a rate of 300 a month - it has at least 600 vehicles in stock ready to be customised.

Toyota workshop
Shields offering protection against landmines can be added

About 75% of its vehicles go to humanitarian projects in Africa as part of on-going work in countries such as Sudan and Sierra Leone.

In one of the workshops, mechanics are stripping out the back of a Land Cruiser as they convert it into a field ambulance - tinting the windows and fitting it with medical equipment and wipe-clean plastic interiors.

Colleagues, meanwhile, equip it with as many as three radio systems.

And while all vehicles are white, the occasional re-paint is required.

A recent order was for two black mortuary vans.

Practical design

"These are nothing like the four-wheel drives you find in the UK suburbs, that have become a status symbol," says workshop manager Gary Summers standing amid shelves packed with bull bars and supplies of tyres.

"They are basic vehicles that are there to do a job.

"Customers don't want complicated electronics. If it's being sent to an area where they are not used to electronics systems then they may not know how to repair it.

"Given the conditions they'll being used in - dirt, dust, bogs - they're designed for as little to be able to go wrong as possible."

When agencies are sending food, medicine and shelter they are also sending people, and they need the vehicles to move them
Michael McElwee
Sales manager

The average vehicle costs between 15,000 and 20,000 - with extra accessories typically adding 5,000 to the bill.

The demand helped the firm turn over 70m last year.

But as well as simply getting the sales, Toyota wins an added benefit, sales manager Michael McElwee argues.

"It gives a prestige to the brand, when their vehicles are shown on the BBC or CNN in these disaster situations, delivering aid to stricken regions," he says.

"Having said that, most of the work our customers do is on-going projects which don't make the headlines."

UN truck in Sierra Leone
Within weeks they are being used in places such as Sierra Leone

When organisations are able to plan ahead, they order vehicles directly from the manufacturer in Japan. That makes for slower preparation and delivery - perhaps three months or more - but a much lower price tag.

But sometimes, when vehicles are needed urgently, customers contact the Gibraltar firm directly with their specifications. An average of 16 hours are then spent making each vehicle ready for its destination.

"When the Asian Tsunami struck we had 70 right-hand drive vehicles in stock," says Michael McElwee. "Within two weeks we had none left."

And within days of the outbreak of conflict in Lebanon, the firm had supplied eight vehicles with orders. More are expected as the scale of the humanitarian aid becomes clearer.

Distribution difficulties

"When agencies are sending food, medicine and shelter they are also sending people, and they need the vehicles to move them," he says. "Transport is a vital part of aid and development."

Sending vehicles to far flung corners of the globe is not cheap. Some 95% go by sea, usually being driven into Spain and then shipped on from there.

To get an order to Senegal this way, for example, takes about eight days.

Unicef truck in Sierra Leone
Vehicles are expected to be used in rough terrain

But in emergency situations, especially when governments are donating aid flights, air freight is used.

One of the biggest problems the firm faces is finding space to store the vehicles on densely-packed Gibraltar.

As well as the army base it has a number of other sites, including hiring an entire floor of a multi-storey car park.

It is acutely aware that its profits are reliant on the hardship of others.

As part of the after-sales service, the firm sends staff to areas where the vehicles are being used, to run training courses on maintenance and advanced driving.

"We develop very close relationships with the organisations," Mr McElwee says.

"We recognise that our customers are in the tough position of having to respond to emergencies and hopefully we're providing a really good service that helps them to do that - a service that is based on partnership rather than just pushing through a sale."


SEE ALSO
Regions and territories: Gibraltar
14 Aug 06 |  Country profiles
Gibraltar proves a winning bet
14 Aug 06 |  Business
Couples who wed in Britain's Med
22 Aug 06 |  Business
Toyota profits keep driving ahead
10 May 06 |  Business
UN appeals for Eritrea vehicles
25 Aug 05 |  Africa

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