Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Driving ambitions... the Wrightbus way

Former employee's remarkable story of a Ballymena firm which has become global market leader in bus development and innovation

Jack Kernohan and William Wright

William Wright began his career working in his father's shed behind their house at Warden Street in Ballymena in the 1940s.

Fast-forward six decades and the family firm, The Wright Group, now employs almost 1000 people and their buses can be seen cruising the streets of London, Singapore and Las Vegas.

Back at home, car drivers and passengers can be seen to do a double-take as buses headed for London destinations like Islington or Tottenham Court Road, or sleek gold Hong Kong-bound double deck vehicles with route displays in Cantonese, pass them on their test drives along the M2.

In its latest coup, the company won the contract to design, engineer and build London's replacement for the world-famous red Routemaster double-decker.

The buses are to be ready for the road in time for the London Olympics in 2012 - a far cry from the school minibuses, work vans and delivery lorries that were once the company's staple.

And William Wright still turns up for work every day, aged 85.

The impressive story of how, has now been committed to print by a former employee.

Wright's recently celebrated over 60 years in business and former sales director Jack Kernohan, who retired in 2005, was convinced to record the history of his former workplace.

"Ted Hesketh, the retired managing director of Translink, said that if I didn't write a book, no one would," he said.

When Mr Kernohan retired from Wrightbus, after working for the company for half a century, he had never operated a computer.

"I had to teach myself the basics before really getting down to the task," said Mr Kernohan.

"The company records of those early years are non-existent, but, fortunately, I had kept many of the old photographs.

"I know myself that William Wright is always looking over the next hill, seeing what is coming over the horizon. He does not have time to look behind him, but I would be more interested in the history side of things."

His book, The Wright Way, goes back 64 years to 1946 when skilled joiner Bob Wright was asked by the manager of the Ballymena and Harryville Co-op if he could build a wooden body for a new bread van. The answer was "yes" and the foundations of the company which exists today were laid.

As the business grew, Bob was joined by his son, William.

Mr Kernohan joined the firm in 1955.

He had been educated at Ballymena Technical School, where he completed a joinery apprenticeship. He also travelled to Belfast to work at McLaughlin -amp; Harvey, before joining Robert Wright -amp; Son.

"Back when I started they were still using the old wooden frameworks," he said.

"But even that far back they were developing new ranges, new products, helping the workers develop their skills.

"I eventually went into management, I was production manager at first, then went into customer care and then into sales, ending up as sales director, all over a period of 50 years.

"The family ethos of the company is as strong today as it was back when I started, when there were only 26 people employed with the firm.

"Even these days, you see newspaper articles celebrating when call centres start a few people here and there - but Wright's still takes on scores of new people every year."

The company has always been at the forefront of travel industry technology.

"The biggest shift in the business came with the development of the PSV (public service vehicle) buses," he said.

"Before that we were building 40ft trailers, coal lorries, delivery vehicles, and we knew we could no longer keep to that remit because of what was happening in Europe. With the Common Market, the larger companies were all buying each other up and a lot of smaller coach builders went to the wall.

"That forced us to grow and Wright's is still the largest family-owned bus manufacturer in Europe.

"All other bus chassis are manufactured in mainland Europe.

"As you can imagine, at the height of the Troubles, going over into the heart of London to sell buses - as soon as the buyers heard the words 'Northern Ireland'... it was difficult.

"Look at things now. Look in the background of any news reports about London and you will see buses driving around that were built in Ballymena - just look for that black 'W' on the front grille."

Wrightbus currently supplies vehicles to travel companies Arriva, First Group, Ulster Bus, Bus Eireann, and Go Ahead.

Last year the firm secured orders for 290 completely built double-decker buses for the Kowloon Motor Bus Company in Hong Kong.

There is also new business in Singapore - the parts are shipped over, along with Wright's staff, who train their foreign counterparts in how to assemble the vehicles.

Some aspects of bus travel that passengers now take for granted originated at the Galgorm plant.

"William Wright first had the ideas about accessibility in the late 1980s," said Mr Kernohan.

"He wanted for a lady with a baby in a pram to be able to walk straight onto a bus.

"He wanted for someone with a stick not to have to climb up steps, he wanted for someone in a wheelchair to be able to have that bus lowered down for them to get on board.

"The lowering buses and the Floline floor technology were developed in the 1990s and it all came from Mr Wright's vision," said Mr Kernohan.

"Wright's diesel electric hybrid double-decker buses hit the roads 10 years ago - we are only seeing hybrid cars being used on the streets now, and still very rarely.

"Hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses are yet another first for Wrightbus - the first to be built in the United Kingdom.

"A batch of these clean vehicles are being used on a busy central London route.

"In Las Vegas, they wanted the articulated buses, the Streetcars, again, the first of which were designed and built in Ballymena."

Not surprisingly, Mr Kernohan has dedicated his book to the employees of The Wright Group.