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All smiles as Hitachi and HM shake on it

PLANT After months of heated discussions, controversy and rumours, HM Plant has signed the deal to distribute Hitachi machinery in the UK. Its Zaxis excavator is expected to take the country by storm, writes Ian Brown

IT'S OFFICIAL: HM Plant is the Hitachi importer for the UK. The five-year deal was formally signed this month and Zaxis-series excavators built by Hitachi are heading this way as you read this.

To show its commitment to the Bridgwater firm, Hitachi has invested heavily in HM Plant, which in turn has a new Japanese banker, allowing Bank of Scotland to bow out, clutching its profits. Other manufacturers are about to find out that HM Plant means business.

There was a clear difference between this announcement and the glum press conference in Amsterdam last year, when Hitachi introduced itself to Europe before it had put its money on the table. This time, HM chairman John Jones was smiling. Even the Japanese executives from Hitachi Europe were smiling.

'We've waited a long time for this moment, ' says Mr Jones. 'We've kept going through a difficult period by sourcing product from what is popularly referred to as 'the grey market', CE marking it and selling to our loyal UK customers. They have supported us well and we are grateful for that. But the capabilities of the latest series of Zaxis excavators is about to open everyone's eyes.

'Hitachi's 30 per cent holding in HM Plant is a huge vote of confidence in our future together, ' he adds, cannily neglecting to put a value on that shareholding.

It later emerges this is worth £9 million, valuing HM Plant at £30 million.

As expected, the Zaxis machines will come in from Hitachi's Japanese factory for now. The new factory in Amsterdam will gradually build up assembly levels until it reaches its intended target of 3,500 machines per annum later this year.

At present just 20-30 excavators are scattered around a huge internal space, dominated by very impressive paint machinery, while elsewhere half a dozen operatives press bushings into booms and dippers.

There's no doubting Hitachi's commitment - it has made a huge investment to secure its European future and its dealer network is almost complete.

It is not yet a 'full-line' manufacturer as it doesn't have backhoe loaders, skid steers or telehandlers. But it intends to, according to European chairman Mr H Nakaura. 'We will have them in the future. For now we are concentrating on our excavators and wheeled loaders, as well as crawler cranes and tracked platforms and carriers, ' he says.

It is worth pointing out that Hitachi is the world's leading manufacturer of hydraulic excavators. Indeed it claims to have invented the genre. Background checks on other manufacturers' ranges confirm that Zaxis is currently the best-performing excavator range available, although it is also the latest to hit the market. Inevitably, rivals will follow.

This fourth buyout at HM Plant is the culmination of a long-held vision by Mr Jones.

He vows this is the final stage of his plan. Let's hope it is. The industry's nerves couldn't stand another series of cliffhangers like this one.