Honour for man at the wheel of Wrightbus
The founder of global transport company Wrightbus has hinted at further expansion as the firm continues to make inroads into markets across the world.
Dr William Wright CBE was speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph as he was announced as the 2014 Innovation Founder, an award celebrating the achievements of some of Northern Ireland's most successful entrepreneurs.
The accolade, part of the Northern Ireland Science Park Connect INVENT2014 Awards, recognises distinction in founding, leading or building an eminent local technology or life sciences business.
Wrightbus, renowned for bringing the "Boris Bus" to London, has sites in Ballymena and Antrim employing almost 2,000 people and exports to international markets, including Singapore and Hong Kong.
Dr William Wright was nominated by the public and then selected by the previous winners, who include the late Professor John Anderson of HeartSine Technologies, Dr Hugh Cormican, founder and director of Andor Technology, Tom Eakin of TG Eakin and Dr Peter FitzGerald, managing director of Randox Laboratories.
William Wright, now in his late 80s, still turns up for work every day in his beloved electric car. He began his career working in his father's shed behind their house at Warden Street in Ballymena in the 1940s.
As coachbuilders, father and son built frames for bread vans and mobile shops.
However, as the supermarkets began to take over, Mr Wright saw that he needed to diversify and identified the growing need for vehicles to be used in public transport.
An engineer and problem solver at heart, Mr Wright and his staff – originally a team of just three – pioneered inventions now commonplace in city streets all over the world, including lowered entrances for wheelchairs and buggies, low emission vehicles and 'bending' buses.
"When I went to London and saw people wearing face masks, I hit on the idea of the hybrid vehicle," said Mr Wright.
"When I saw a woman struggling to get a buggy onto a bus, I began to think about the more accessible entrances. When I saw that the aircraft men were using composites and carbon fibre, I thought we could do the same.
"A good engineer always sees problems. And that is how the company has managed to progress and keep growing, because we have a lot of good engineers."
He added: "We started in Warden Street, then we moved to the Cushendall Road, and we filled that place, we eventually moved out to Galgorm, and we had to buy the factory next door.
"I was always watching other factories coming up for sale, and now we are even outgrowing our main factory – there isn't enough space for all the cars that come here every day."
The founder of Wrightbus has said that he owes his success to problem solving, a good team, and vocational education.
As a past student of ‘Ballymena Tech’ — now known as the Northern Regional College — Dr William Wright said that practical experience and apprenticeships are key to building a strong economy.
“The Tech widened my horizons,” he said.
“You got your experience working on the job. We still place a strong emphasis on apprenticeships today in Wrightbus. We have a special training unit and we buddy the new starts up with more experienced engineers.
“While there is obviously a place for academic achievement, I think vocational training is the bees knees.”
He said that the success of the company has been based on ‘hunger’.
“There are two types of hunger, there is the hunger you feel when you don’t have enough money to buy 2lbs of sugar, and I have been there, and my wife has been very angry with me about it at times, and there is intellectual hunger, the hunger to try something different.
“We’ve always looked ahead, years down the line, and that’s why we put so much emphasis on research and development. Those companies which stood still, made the same things all the time, they’ve gone and we are still here.”
And, of course, when it comes to new technologies, Dr Wright puts his money where his mouth is. “I drive a Nissan Leaf. It’s the nicest thing I have ever driven, I love it,” he said.
“Electric cars are the way of the future. If you’d asked me back when I started out if I thought I’d be driving an electric car, I would have laughed.
“I charge mine on a plug linked to the house at night.
“This technology is used brilliantly on public transport networks too. I wouldn’t do anything or champion anything if I didn’t believe in it myself.”
Steve Orr, director of NISP CONNECT, which has bestowed the Innovation Founder award on to Dr Wright, said that Wrightbus is a perfect example of a company which has invested in innovation.
“William certainly is visionary,” he said.
“By challenging the norm and creating cutting edge designs, the company has gained a huge competitive edge and as a result, Wrightbus is continuing to win major contracts around the world.
“The Innovation Founder award celebrates the local innovators who have not only changed the landscape of Northern Ireland business and made a real and lasting contribution to the local economy, but they are breaking ground in their industries around the world. This really typifies William.
“We had some fantastic nominations for the 2014 Innovation Founder, and there is no doubt that innovation is prevalent here, just as it has always been. You just have to look at some of the inventions which have come from the province — the tractor, pneumatic tyre, whiskey distilling — to see that innovation is in our blood. It’s a very exciting time for Northern Ireland.”