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‘Ballymena has lost a giant’: Tributes paid as Wrightbus founder Sir William Wright dies aged 94

Thanksgiving service for ‘legendary’ business figure to take place on Wednesday as family say he will be lovingly remembered


Sir William Wright

Sir William Wright

Sir William Wright

Sir William Wright, one of Northern Ireland’s best-known business figures, has been hailed as “an entrepreneur without match” after his death at the age of 94.

The renowned Wrightbus founder, who was knighted for his contribution to industry, passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning.

His family said he would be “lovingly remembered”. A service of thanksgiving will be held in Green Pastures Church, Ballymena on Wednesday at 2pm.

Sir William founded the firm in a tin shed in Co Antrim with his father Robert following the Second World War.

Wrightbus became a huge success story and was the first company in the UK to produce an electric bus.

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons led tributes, saying his legacy cannot be overstated.

“Sir William was a man of immense standing, not just within Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector but also within the local community.

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"A pioneer and entrepreneur of rare foresight and ability, for which he was deservedly knighted, Sir William took over the family business and moved it into the construction of buses, a process which saw it become the Wright Group, and grow into the success today that is Wrightbus.”

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley said he was “one of the last true captains of industry and commerce”.

“Today, with the passing of Sir William Wright, Ballymena has lost a giant,” he said.

“A Godly man of faith. A loyal Ulsterman. An entrepreneur without match.

“We will not see his like again.

“I wish to extend to Lady Wright and to all the family my and my family's and our party’s sincerest condolences for their loss."

It built London's Routemaster double-decker - dubbed the "Boris Bus" - which was ordered by the Prime Minister when he was mayor and chair of Transport for London, the capital's public transport operator.

However, it fell into financial difficulties in recent years and was bought by English industrialist Jo Bamford in 2019.

Mr Paisley added: “Sir William was a giant character.

"He was one of the last true captains of industry and commerce and a man who has left his mark, not just locally but globally. Everywhere there is engineering or manufacturing or sales of busses his genius will be remembered.

“I have had the honour of knowing him and his family for decades. He was both a political and business leader.

"He cared passionately about the employment and skills training of local people. He loved Northern Ireland and he was dedicated in everything that he did. When in his presence you knew you were with someone remarkable.

"He had that X factor that, so few possess. But those who have it make a difference to all around. Northern Ireland was so fortunate to have him as a son.”

Sir William served on Ballymena Borough Council from 1981 to 1985 and again from 1993 to 2005.

Mid and East Antrim Council awarded him the Freedom of the Borough in 2019 in recognition of his contribution to global business and the local economy.

Sir William was awarded an OBE for services to the bus industry and the community in 2001. In 2011 he was awarded a CBE for his services to the bus industry.

He was further honoured in May 2018 with a knighthood for services to both the bus industry and the UK economy.

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Noel Williams said Sir William was “an inspirational engineering pioneer”.

"Since its foundation by William and his father, Robert, in a tin shed in 1946, his business grew to be a global leader in its sector and has provided employment for thousands of people, particularly in the local and surrounding area.

“Sir William’s vision, innovation and entrepreneurship was exceptional and he placed Ballymena, indeed Northern Ireland, on the map for manufacturing excellence. He was a trailblazing leader of industry and commerce.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann said: "Sir William Wright will rank as one of north Antrim's most legendary figures.

"He built Wrightbus into a global brand and his dedication to unionism was also known throughout the globe, especially in his past role as a Ballymena councillor.

“He will always be remembered as a stalwart for Northern Ireland."

TUV leader Jim Allister said the passing of Sir William was “a sad and seminal moment for the town and community of Ballymena and district”.

“A Freeman of the Borough, few have left such an indelible legacy in terms of lasting jobs and contribution to economic, engineering and manufacturing success in the area,” he said.

"Wrightbus, which he built up so assiduously, remains both a key and large employer in the district and leader in terms of trail-blazing technology, presently evident in the hydrogen and electric bus market. Much of this success can be traced to the foresight and leadership of Sir William.”

Alliance MLA Patricia O’Lynn said Mr Wright was a major employer in Ballymena and beyond.

“Many constituents and friends have been employed by Wrightbus throughout the years,” she said. “A major aspect of his legacy will be the industrial advancement of electric/hydrogen-powered buses.”

Translink chief executive Chris Conway said it was “very sad news”, adding: “He made a huge contribution to the bus industry globally and the NI economy.”

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