Why did Wrights go so Wrong?

A tragic conclusion to the weeks of waiting

Today has brought the sad news of Wrightbus going into administration. Our thoughts are with the workers their families and all those local businesses which rely on the work generated by Wrightbus. Our thoughts are also with Sir William Wright that rare breed of local entrepreneur who built a world class business from the ground up.

The iconic Wrightbus Routemaster

The local company that built London’s distinctive double-decker “Boris bus” has gone into administration, with 1,200 workers made redundant and with it scores of spin off businesses in the supply chain facing uncertainty. Wrights had been in talks with three potential buyers after suffering cash flow difficulties but failed to reach a deal.

It would be galling now to think that some of those bidders withdrew in the hope that they could snap up the firm for less when it entered administration. This along with the collapse of travel group Thomas Cook spelled a bleak picture for the British economy. The government has an obligation to support companies like this owned by the family of Sir William Wright, its 92-year-old founder.

It is also clear that this failure is in no small part due to political failure here, the failure of MLAs to govern, and the failure of the local MP Ian Paisley Jnr whose diligence in securing foreign junckets stands in glaring contrast to securing the future of the three main employers in the area.

A Wright family spokesman said the change from diesel to electric in bus technology had caused a “sharp decline” in demand for buses in the UK. Some believe the family put £15m into the business last year and a further £8m since January and also provided funding to pay staff wages for the last fortnight as its financial situation worsened. Even at this late stage we hope that government will explore all remaining options for the business and assets.

As a knowledge brokerage we view the loss in different terms to most. For LEXXER the real tragedy is the potential loss of knowledge, and innovative advantage to Northern Ireland. We are aware that the predecessor at the Galgorm site JTI or Gallahers as it was once know were pioneers in tobacco machinery and the patents for these innovative machines the Inellectual property was one asset the Japanese owners stripped.

Our concern is that the years of Research and Development in which Wrights were world leaders will be lost to the local ‘knowledge economy’. We were pleased to attend the opening in 2016 of a new facility at Queen’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering named after Dr William Wright CBE, not only in recognition of his contribution to industry in Northern Ireland, but also his relentless drive in the promotion and development of new innovation and technology to reduce fossil fuel usage and emissions that are harmful to the environment.

The perfect combination of local government, innovative business and knowledge rich university

The project was a joint venture between the Wrights Group, which invested £300,000 in the centre – a figure matched by Queen’s University – with an upward potential investment figure of more than £6m. The key aim of the centre was to promote research and advanced engineering to facilitate the creation and development of technologies suitable for today’s bus industry, particularly as these needs become increasingly complex.

Knowledge is a key asset which must be saved

It was opened in Summer 2017 with a full and ambitious research portfolio A a knowledge broker working with local universities we welcomed this investment since evidence shows that businesses are more productive when they innovate and collaborate. Those businesses are more inclined to export and employ more highly qualified people. Wrightbus had a proven track record in innovation and creativity and is a familiar sight on the streets across the world. Queen’s University’s commitment to excellence in research and innovation and making a positive global impact was a perfect match. Such partnerships not only drove economic development and grew employment but continued Northern Ireland’s history of innovation and entrepreneurship and place on the world stage.

We had often cited the Wrights-Queens partnership as a model of knowledge exchange. Queen’s partnership with Wrightbus was one of longest standing industry-university collaborations. which led to the development of some of the world’s most advanced hybrid engines. We only hope that the William Wright Technology Centre will continue and will ensure continued development of even better and cleaner environmental technology for advanced passenger transport in the UK and around the world.