Is this the sad end of a 73-year-old story?
A short time now exists for someone to lift Wrightbus out of administration, saving a valued supplier and hundreds of jobs.
The loss is being most firmly felt in Ballymena, where thousands of jobs have already gone
At the time of going to press old established bus manufacturer Wrightbus was on the brink of collapse, after falling into administration and despite strenuous efforts to find a buyer.
Established in 1946 by Robert Wright and his son William, it was originally involved in building vans and later military vehicles.
In due course it moved into passenger vehicles – the company produced school and welfare vehicles of increasing sizes although the Wright Contour coach was its first serious venture and captured the imagination with its styling. Later the company turned its attention to service buses, small ones at first, and the Handybus became the sensible replacement for van-derived minibuses taking advantage of the perfectly-timed Dennis Dart. With volumes and reputation in the ascendancy Wrightbus built the first low floor bus on the Dennis Dart SLF chassis and later on Scania as well.
The patented Alusuisse and later its Aluminque construction process produced lightweight vehicles which were well put together. Since the Contour they led the industry in terms of design. It always managed to have excellent in-house capability dating right back to Trevor Erskine, who designed the Fiesta for Ford, and in turn recruited new designers to carry on his work at Wrightbus.
Of course, the company moved into double deck as London’s success with frequent small buses transitioned into frequent large ones. Soon its presence was very firmly felt in cities across UK.
Never afraid to try new things it helped design the revolutionary ‘rubber-tyred tram’ on Volvo chassis that was ‘ftr’ for FirstGroup. Only 39 were produced but rather more were produced on Hess chassis in hybrid form for RTV in Las Vegas. This was their most successful US venture.
Wrightbus had complicated relations with the chassis manufacturers that it depended on. This nimble company seemed to find working with the major manufacturers challenging. For a while Volvo could not compete in the London market as it transitioned between engine types leaving the Irish manufacturer frustrated and suffering. Their earlier low floor buses were on Dennis chassis, but again this supply was lost as the latter fell into the TransBus crisis and then absorbed into an ADL that wanted to body its in-house product.
This led Wrightbus to develop its own chassis platform range. The same engineering genius which had brought it success in body design and construction created innovative chassis solutions across the whole range of products. It continued to build on Volvo chassis by customer request and in the Far East market as it did not have its own three-axle product. Exports became a mainstream business and the company opened a production facility in Malaysia for this market. The Hong Kong market has a reputation for strict standards and Wrightbus quality was well received.
Success in the Transport for London competition for a New Bus for London led to 1,000 more or less identical vehicles being produced. An exceptional production run in UK terms. In its time it was the greenest and cleanest vehicle in its class. Hopes were high for orders from elsewhere and a couple of the prototypes toured other continents as part of the GREATBritain government campaign.
Despite global sales and extensive research capability the company remained a family business. William Wright, knighted in 2018, remained active in the business – famously championing their work on new technologies despite being well over 90. They upheld their strict protestant upbringing, not allowing any work on Sundays, and being faithful to the community. In the good times the company made substantial donations to the church and Jeff Wright, Sir William’s son, devoted a considerable amount of time to it.
This family business was loyal to its customers and to its workforce. That loyalty was often rewarded – in tough times customers like FirstGroup supported it with orders and many deals were done ‘on a handshake’.
The company had gained an excellent reputation for design, innovation and quality
The company had gained an excellent reputation for design, innovation and quality. For years it led the industry – the first purpose-built midibus, the first low floor single-decker, the first proper hybrid, and the New Routemaster. Its most recent whole vehicle product, the StreetDeck with the 4cyl Daimler engine, delivers the best fuel economy in its class.
The company has withstood challenging conditions over the past two years. It lost its well-respected chief executive Mark Nodder a year ago, and no replacement ever took office. It had suffered the disruption and cost of a move in 2016 to a new factory where all its satellite businesses could be consolidated. The new factory could build 1,500 buses a year but caught the moment when orders were down to half that.
Wrightbus also developed solutions to the widely different global preferences for new technology – the various flavours of hybrids, electric and hydrogen fuel cell. However, in the wider automotive world even the major players were conjoining to collaborate on new technology and the anticipated future with connected and autonomous vehicles.
Research and development costs are now eye-watering for even the major players.
Its main competitor ADL had raised its game significantly with excellent quality and design. The partnership with BYD (one which Wrightbus had turned down) has brought significant numbers of single and double deck electric vehicles to the UK, especially in London, with Wrightbus not having comparable products either available or at the right price point.
UK bus volumes dropped to low levels: uncertainty over future technologies; two of its main customers (First and Arriva) up for sale; currency movements that affected its costs in a market fiercely resistant to increases; and its decision to build whole vehicles instead of just bodies not only gave it development costs but also caused its chassis building partners to look elsewhere. Volvo then famously brought MCV into the market with several Wrightbus customers changing allegiances. Some loyal companies such as KMB insisted on Wrightbus bodywork but as part of the company’s attempts to protect its workforce these were built more expensively in Ballymena instead of at its Malaysia facility. This decision turned out to be an albatross.
All these negative conditions conspired to drive the company into losses. The company bravely withstood those losses as it was convinced a recovery would follow. Development work continued and a hydrogen double decker for London was shown to the mayor in November 2016. It was notable for a complete absence of any intrusion into the passenger area of any equipment and the certification work was completed over the following two years. Hydrogen could deliver London’s range requirements and an order for 20, funded in an EU competition, followed. The first of those vehicles were on the production line at the time of administration.
Eventually the company reached out to potential investors. Several came forward – both from China and from within the UK. None of them have found the business prospects of the short to medium term very attractive, especially in the uncertain world of future technology. An automotive partner whose research, development and homologation work could have been shared was an ideal candidate. A strong bidder from the Chinese automotive industry, which had earlier expressed an interest in technical collaboration looked carefully at the business. So did a local businessman and others.
The cost of reorganising, stabilising and revitalising the company has so far proved too much for even the most adventurous suitor … A short time now exists for someone to lift the company out of administration
However, the cost of reorganising, stabilising and revitalising the company has so far proved too much for even the most adventurous suitor and on September 25 the company entered formal administration.
A short time now exists for someone to lift the company out of administration. After that the assets will be sold. Within days we will know whether there will be a new Wrightbus, or just a legacy of high quality products running around the world.
If its departure is permanent then it has been the last UK-owned bus manufacturer in existence – ADL being now owned in Canada and Optare in India. There is no doubt that the market has the capacity to absorb the Wrightbus share and with less competition there is the potential for prices to harden. The loss is being most firmly felt in Ballymena, where thousands of jobs have already gone as Michelin, Gallaher and now Wrightbus have closed. The prospects in this region are now very poor, although the recent rescue of Harland and Wolff will give rise to a little optimism.
Moreover in the game of global politics these events have resonated with the prime minister Boris Johnson who was, indirectly, once their biggest customer and his need to stay friendly with the DUP; their MP Ian Paisley represents the constituency. Who would have ever thought a UK bus manufacturer would be involved in the high political stakes surrounding a government driving through a policy to leave the EU, and indeed one in a region that voted to stay.
About the author:
Leon Daniels was MD Surface Transport at Transport for London between April 2011 and December 2017. He was previously Commercial Director UK Bus at FirstGroup plc.