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Wrightbus owner Jo Bamford: 'I have a family of 400 now and I have to make it work'

The industrialist says cleaner energy is critical to the Ballymena bus builder’s future

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Energia Group chief executive Ian Thom; Jo Bamford, Wrightbus chairman; Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, and Translink group chief executive Chris Conway at the launch of investment in hydrogen-powered buses

Energia Group chief executive Ian Thom; Jo Bamford, Wrightbus chairman; Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, and Translink group chief executive Chris Conway at the launch of investment in hydrogen-powered buses

Energia Group chief executive Ian Thom; Jo Bamford, Wrightbus chairman; Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, and Translink group chief executive Chris Conway at the launch of investment in hydrogen-powered buses

Jo Bamford, the new owner of Ballymena bus manufacturer Wrightbus, has a challenge on his hands.

He's embarking on rebuilding the company after it went into administration under the ownership of the Wright family, as well as responding to the need for zero-emissions technology in business.

The Bamfords are a famous family in business, with Jo Bamford's grandfather establishing equipment giant JCB, now run by his son and Jo's father, Lord Bamford, who has been a major campaigner for Brexit. His son isn't keen to be drawn into the debate, describing himself as a "globalist". But he adds: "Brexit is now a certainty, and business loves certainty."

After an event in Belfast to launch a pilot for three fuel-cell electric double-decker buses powered by hydrogen, he says: "We've got a half-full order book for the year and some wonderfully loyal customers who have been fantastic for us. The reality for any business is that customers make pay day happen and our customers have been wonderful to us. We now have to provide them with the best bus, the best zero-emissions solution for the future."

Battery power and hydrogen are the key zero-emissions options though it will continue to make diesel buses as long as there is customer demand.

"We at Wrightbus need to have a foot in every zero-emissions camp and the reality is that there are two solutions, the hydrogen and the battery. One does short routes, which is batteries, and the other does long routes, which is hydrogen. We're putting our energies into both."

But he adds: "There will still be use for diesel, it's got 120 years of research and development, and it's still a cheap and good solution, and it's still really quite clean these days."

He says the company is working on providing 20 hydrogen-fuelled buses in London, and 15 in Aberdeen, while Birmingham is also expected to sign up.

"The only problem is we need to make hydrogen on a big enough scale so we need to somehow get a wind farm here and a big electrolyser to make it cost the same as diesel. We're speaking to a wind farm, and how do we fund it? We might get government support, and once you get government support, then it's great."

His first experience of Wrightbus and Ballymena came when his other company, Ryse Hydrogen, collaborated on an order for Transport for London.

He says the company has been helped by politicians including Secretary of State Julian Smith and North Antrim MP Ian Paisley, who phoned Mr Bamford following Wrightbus' collapse.

"As the local MP, he works tirelessly and has worked tirelessly to get me here. He chased me and he got me to come in. As far as I'm concerned, he's done what a local MP should do."

He adds: "I just want my bus company to be a success and as many people to work there as possible. I've got a great workforce and I want it to carry on."

As to targets for the future size of the workforce - which is currently 400 strong - he says: "I don't know, it depends on how many orders I get and how good I am at running around selling stuff. Business for me is about being a good citizen. A business should live within its means, make enough profit to reinvest in itself, be as good to its workforce as it can and have a product that the market would like. We aim to have a business that's a good local citizen, gives back to the community and makes it work.

"We have to do that by making profit and we have to reinvest in our product and we also have to get the zero-emission thing right.

"We are a small business playing against global players and we don't have a lot of money to invest in a lot of different solutions so we have to get whatever solutions right and pick some winners."

He said he has spoken to Sir William Wright, co-founder of Wrightbus. "I bumped into him in the car park the other day in Ballymena; I saw him driving in so I went up to say hello to him. He reminds me of my grandfather... he's 93 years old and he knows more about buses than I'll ever know. I shook his hand and he said: 'Look, absolutely no hard feelings whatsoever'. I asked him to come to the bus factory to give me some advice and he was very welcoming and open to that."

Mr Bamford says he's been working in factories since he was a teenager: "I've run factories my whole life. At boarding school I got sent to the diesel engineering manufacturer Perkins, starting my shift at 6am bolting engines together, then I'd go to school.

"When I went and joined my dad in the business, he started me on the shop floor. I worked my way through JCB and I spent 15 years there. I lived in America for a bit. I was a travelling salesman in the Deep South, in the Bible Belt. I would do 1,000 miles a week and every time I saw a competitor machine I would pull over on the side of the road."

He said he frequently turns to his father for advice. "He's done this all before so I'm able to call him up and say what about this, what about that. He works every day and runs his own business and for a long time I worked with him in that."

He's committed to maintaining the Wrightbus name, stressing that Bamford Bus Company was just a vehicle to buy the business.

While the bulk of current orders are in Britain, he stresses "the world is our market".

"Asia likes our buses. I was in Hong Kong last week, they've got 1,200 Wrightbuses there, they've got 700 in Singapore. I was seeing the guy in Hong Kong and hopefully he'll give us some more orders, we'll see."

He says he sees parallels between the Wrights, who owned Wrightbus for over seven decades, and his own family.

"My grandfather started a business with a second-hand welding kit. My grandmother used to drive a Bedford 10-tonne truck with my father as a baby strapped in the front.

"She would drive to London and pick up air raid shelters - which was the only way you could get metal in those days - take them back to grandpa and he'd weld them into trailers...

"The family business is a private business which has grown by being very conservative, we've invested most of our profits back into the business every year developing new products. We have factories around the world and hopefully one day Wrightbus will be like that, especially if we get that zero-emission thing right."

Negotiations leading up to the deal to buy Wrightbus were tense, with Mr Bamford embroiled in a row over land with Jeff Wright, the company's shareholder. But Mr Bamford isn't keen to look back: "That's the past. At the end of the day we have a bus business that needs orders, we have people that need jobs, and you know, I've got a family of 400 people that need to make this survive so that they can put food on the table."

He hasn't had time to explore Ballymena. "I'm here probably two or three days a week. I get up, I leave my hotel, I go to the factory, I get back to the hotel at about 8pm. I probably then have my dinner with my CEO, then the next day I might get on a plane, go and see customers, most likely in GB at this point in time, and sell.

"And my wife hasn't really seen me at this point in time, and my children haven't really seen me. So, I'd like to say I've been up and down the high street in Ballymena and gotten to know it really well, but I haven't. The main energy of energy at the moment is getting the factory back up and running again."

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