Belfast Telegraph

Margaret Canning: Wrightbus decision another disaster for Ballymena as firm failed to keep up with electric rivals

Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Just 16 months ago, William Wright was knighted in a ceremony at London's Buckingham Palace, lauded as a captain of industry, the patriarch of an all-conquering family business.

Its most famous product, the New Routemaster - known as the Boris Bus, after the double decker was commissioned by Boris Johnson while Mayor of London - had served the city for five years when the sword wielded by Prince Charles touched Sir William's shoulder.

Yesterday's scenes of sorrowful workers pushing their tool boxes along the pavement was a far cry from Buckingham Palace. The business that was Sir William's life's work came to an end - along with the careers of 1,200 skilled workers at the company, at least for the short term.

It's the worst economic shock Ballymena has ever faced - and that's for a town once regarded as the engine room of our economy.

The company had many wonderful years, perhaps peaking in 2012 at the start of a deal which would eventually hit 1,000 orders from Transport for London for the new Routemaster. There were also orders in recent years from Chile, Hong Kong, Mexico, the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic.

And it was always an innovator. In 2011, former sales director Jack Kernohan wrote a history of the site, The Wright Way.

He said at the time that Sir William had been a pioneer.

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"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."

Despite such glories, commentator Iain Ballentine, who was an early stage investor in Tesla, said the company failed by not developing a fully competitive electric bus.

"It hadn't kept up with its rivals," he said.

"The reality is that the UK urban bus market is undergoing a rapid and fundamental transformation, whereby fully electric buses are taking over.

"This is partly due to environmental pressures, but just as much about economics."

Even before Wrightbus' troubles, the Ballymena area had lost around 1,6 00 jobs as a result of the closure of two major employers, Michelin and JTI Gallaher, in recent years.

But unlike those other companies, Wrights was locally owned.

The Wright dynasty was an emblem of the town's success, their strong faith personifying Ballymena's reputation as Northern Ireland's 'Bible belt'.

That very religious faith prompted Sir William's son Jeff to set up his own evangelical church, Green Pastures, as well as start a multi-million-pound building project to provide extensive premises for his flock.

But critics have raised questions over Wrights Group's £15m in charitable donations towards funding what it calls "the group's commitment to Christian, evangelical and other charitable activities".

Belfast Telegraph

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