By David Owen

David Owen_small1Electricity, like ballet and ancient Greek, has always been a bit of a mystery to me.

I had fondly imagined that if you wanted to stage a sports event in an unconventional location you simply shipped in the infrastructure, attached a standard 13-amp plug (you know, the brown wire is live; the blue one is neutral – the stuff even I know) and trained an extension lead to the nearest electrical socket.

Apparently it is a bit more complicated than that.

Which explains why as I scrunched around the ochre gravel of Horse Guards Parade in central London this summer, one of the most insistent sounds emanating from the beach volleyball Olympic test event was the hum of what I took to be electricity generators.

It explains too why companies such as Aggreko, an electrical power and temperature control specialist, are nowadays such an important piece in the complex jigsaw puzzle of services needed to mount a big international sports event.

When you attend London 2012 next year, while it will be hard to miss the sea of Coca-Cola, Samsung and Visa logos outside the venues, you might not even notice that Aggreko – exclusive supplier of temporary energy services to the Games – is there.

So it is worth underlining just what the company will be bringing to this colossal global party.

Oklahoma City, Düsseldorf, Jerusalem, Bulawayo – all are cities of between half and three-quarters of a million people.

With one megawatt enough to power roughly 1,000 households, those are the sorts of places whose electricity needs could in theory be accommodated by the total temporary power requirement for London 2012.

Aggreko temporary_power_plant_03-01-12
"London 2012 will be one of the largest sports events Aggreko has ever done," says Bill Caplan, managing director of the company's Europe and Middle East region.

"We will support some 40 venues in London, using around 400 generators powered with diesel, biodiesel and natural gas], 225 megawatts of power, 1,000 kilometres of cable and 3,500 distributor boards."

A distributor board, as I can tell you I think reliably following Caplan's extended tutorial, is the piece of equipment that takes the power to your computer/tea kettle/light, or whatever it may be.

In some instances, Aggreko will be the primary power source; in others it will provide the back-up supply.

"One of our core competences is the ability to deal with complexity," Caplan explains.

"We have design engineers who look at venues...and design a power solution."

It is a fragmented industry, or as Caplan puts it: "A lot of people rent generators around the world."

But in this generation game, Aggreko is, by any yardstick, a big player.

In the year to December 31, 2010, the company reported revenue of £1.23 billion ($1.92 billion/€1.47 billion) and turned pre-tax profits of £307.1 million ($478.3 million/€367.7 million).

A chunky £87 million ($136 million/€104 million) of revenue came from what chief executive Rupert Soames described as "a hat-trick of major events" – the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2010 Asian Games.

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"We do Glastonbury as well," Caplan says.

"We mobilise 250 generators for a four-day event.

"All the vendors at Glastonbury run 100 per cent on temporary power."

In another example of its impressive global capabilities, the company this year moved 200 megawatts of emergency power equipment in around 300 containers within 90 days of the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

"Part of our strategy is mobility," Caplan says, explaining that a piece of equipment used at the London Olympics might be supporting, say, an oil and gas well three months later.

The good news as far as Great Britain, with its current deep-seated economic problems, is concerned is that Aggreko's head office is in Glasgow.

Indeed, with 3,800 employees around the world, the company is one of the very biggest Scottish-based multinationals outside the financial services sector.

It even makes things here in Britain.

aggreko dumbarton_plant_03-01-12
As Caplan tells me, it is in the process of investing £20 million ($31 million/€24 million) in a new manufacturing site (pictured) in Dumbarton, south of Loch Lomond.

This will make a range of kit, including generators, transformers and temperature control equipment.

Says Caplan, an American who has been in the UK for more than 20 years and is a season ticket-holder at Chelsea Football Club: "We are a successful UK manufacturing and support services company."

Having a manufacturing capability, he says, "allows us to build kit that really suits the rental market in a number of the sectors we compete in.

"I can have a piece of kit that will run in minus 60 degree temperatures in Siberia and the same kit will run in plus 50 degrees in the Middle East."

Next year would be a landmark year for Aggreko even without the Olympic Games: it will mark the 50th anniversary of the company's foundation in the Netherlands in 1962.

This international heritage helps to explain both the prominence of the colour orange in the group's corporate materials and its – to an Englishman – rather puzzling name.

"Aggreko", it turns out, is an abbreviated version of the more prosaic "Koopmans Generators", combining letters from the Dutch word "aggregate", meaning generator, and the last name of the founder, a certain Mr Koopmans.

In 1984, Aggreko became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Salvesen Group, being de-merged from Salvesen 13 years later to become a separately quoted plc on the London Stock Exchange.

Caplan acknowledges that acting as a supplier for big international sports events gives Aggreko "a tremendous amount of credibility with our customer base".

It is critical, however, that nothing be seen to go wrong: let the lights go out on an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony and years of goodwill could be undermined.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the company does absolutely everything in its, well, power to ensure that its contribution to proceedings is alright on the night – for example, keeping an inventory of spare parts and back-up generators.

"Generators are engines and engines break down," Caplan says.

"We have a very comprehensive programme around preventative maintenance.

"We work extremely hard to be the most reliable provider in the industry."

usain bolt_03-01-12
When we witness the marvels performed by world-class athletes such as Usain Bolt (pictured) and Rebecca Adlington, we are usually consumed by the moment and don't dwell on the range of ancillary services that make their feats possible.

In recent years, Aggreko has emerged as an important cog in the stage machinery of the Olympics and many other so-called mega-events.

It is worth bearing in mind just occasionally that for all to run smoothly, companies such as Aggreko need to be as outstanding in their respective fields as Bolt and Adlington are in theirs.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.