Company profile | Colas: A century of Innovation

As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, Colas highlights that innovation is the key for a business’ longevity and growth. 

Entering a market with a completely new product is risky, but that did not stop the founders of Colas – then known as Asphalt Cold Mix – from launching a business in 1922. It offered a cold spray process for road surfacing using bitumen emulsion, a mixture of fine droplets of bitumen and water. 

“It was a game changer for the UK road construction industry,” says Colas UK chief executive Faïçal Lahmamsi.

Bitumen emulsion

Bitumen emulsion was easier to use than traditional asphalt as it could be applied at ambient temperature rather than having to be heated to temperatures above 120°C.

Lahmamsi says that from the first year of operation, the company was able to demonstrate the capabilities of this technique. The material soon became popular as clients recognised that it was easier to use and demand for road paving soared after World War I.  

The company did not just make bitumen emulsions, it offered road construction and maintenance services as well. It also secured a number of patents relating to the manufacture of bitumen emulsions and in 1925 registered the Colas trademark.

Colas was formed 100 years ago to offer cold asphalt products

That year Asphalt Cold Mix merged with a company called Cold Mix Manufacturing to form Colas Products. With the success of its products and services in the UK, the company decided to set up subsidiaries in several European countries as well as South Africa and Australia. 

A pivotal moment in the history of the firm was its acquisition by Shell in 1934. At the time overproduction of oil meant that providing bitumen emulsion was an attractive proposition for oil companies. 

Lahmamsi says that the expansion of the bitumen emulsion product portfolio and the addition of hot asphalt techniques – and acquisitions which occurred under Shell’s management, helped the company become resilient to the market fluctuations experienced in the following decades. 

Recycled road pavements

One of the first innovations under Shell’s ownership was Retread, an emulsion which enables road pavements to be recycled. Retread emulsion is mixed into an existing pavement and the surface is compacted. Binder and aggregate chippings are then rolled in to close surface voids before a surface dressing is applied. 

Retread is still offered by Colas – which has been wholly owned by the international Colas Group since 1995 when Shell sold its stake in the business – alongside other recycling services. As UK road operators try to cut their carbon emissions, these solutions are becoming more appealing than ever. 

“We are seeing a big interest from clients to engage with us and develop more insitu recycling techniques and cold techniques in general, so we will bringing new insitu methods to the UK this year,” says Lahmamsi. 

In terms of how carbon emissions reduction is achieved, he explains that the use of bitumen emulsion removes the need to heat the asphalt mixture, resulting in lower carbon emissions compared to hot mix asphalt. He adds that recycling asphalt planings means a very limited amount of virgin aggregate is needed, leading to further carbon savings in terms of the transportation and production of these aggregates. 

The company’s innovations include the Wattway solar road surface panels

The company is investing heavily in the development of sustainable products. One of them is Wattway 7mm thick solar panels which can be supplied in various sizes which are glued onto an existing road surface. Wattway can be used to power energy-consuming equipment such as streetlights, signalling systems or vehicle charging points. The product is being tested at two locations in the UK. 

Wattway is one of many innovations under development by the Colas Group, which comprises 800 business units in 50 countries. 

“We invest a lot in research and development,” says Lahmamsi. “We aim to be a world leader in innovative, responsible mobility solutions. 

“Research and development is important for us because it is in our DNA to create solutions to specific issues, either societal or client led.” 

We are seeing a big interest from clients to engage with us and develop more insitu recycling techniques and cold techniques

He adds that another reason for investing in research and development is that the company’s objective is to be self-sufficient, rather than relying on subcontractors for products or services.

Colas has clients of various sizes across different sectors in the UK. “We are covering several activities,” explains Lahmamsi. “It starts from bitumen supply, bitumen production, quarrying and asphalt plants. Then there is the contracting side of the business, which includes surfacing activities and civil works. We also deliver some specific activities like surface treatments, traffic management, traffic signals and more.”

With a century of experience maintaining and constructing roads in the UK, the company is one of the key players in the market, signing major contracts with local authorities and National Highways. One of its most recent major contract wins is the eight year £328M Area 9 maintenance and response contract for National Highways. The contract starts in July and covers the strategic road network in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire as well as parts of Gloucestershire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.

Airport construction and rehab

The company also has a wealth of experience in airport construction and rehabilitation. Between 1935 and 1942 Colas was responsible for more than 700 military airfields in the UK, plus over 1,000 overseas. The most recent airport scheme delivered by Colas Resurfacing is at Cork City Airport in Ireland. It is it is also just starting on another scheme at Gatwick Airport. 

In addition, the firm undertakes marine and coastal engineering works and civil works for rail. One of Colas’ highest profile current rail schemes is East West Rail, a new railway line between Oxford and Cambridge. 

“We’ve got a long history in the UK and we’ve shown resilience over the last 100 years. We’ve got a very ambitious growth plan that started from 2019, which is to grow our turnover significantly by 2024,” says Lahmamsi. 

He adds that the plans are not solely focused on financial outcomes: “Any growth plans, organic or through acquisitions, take into account our commitments in terms of decarbonisation, social value and looking after our team’s safety.”

  • Published in association with Colas

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