Wrightbus MD Neil Collins: ‘A huge future for this business’

Wrightbus Managing Director Neil Collins

Neil Collins was named Managing Director of Wrightbus in July. His arrival comes at a key time for the reborn manufacturer, which is continuing its strong resurgence under the ownership of Jo Bamford.

Taking the helm of the Ballymena business is Neil’s first role in the bus industry. But Wrightbus’s primary focus – the transition to zero emission – is not a discipline that he is new to. Previous employers Dimplex Group and Rubble Master are both engaged with the same shift. While bus building is far removed from both of their respective areas of activity, many of the challenges that come with technology change are common.

Zero-emission “is a space that I have worked in for many years,” says Neil. Wrightbus’s involvement in that sphere was part of what attracted him, but the dynamism that has developed under its new ownership – including relationships with the commonly-owned Fuze, an asset finance company, and Ryze Hydrogen – was another factor, he adds.

“We are well set up here. Since Jo Bamford took over the business, he has put strong foundations in place. There are significant links with JCB, which help as well. We have re-engaged a significant number of employees and with some new eyes and people from outside the industry, there is a great future for this company.”

When the current recruitment drive is complete, Wrightbus will employ 930 people in Ballymena. That will increase further in the medium-term, but such growth will likely come alongside expansion into new markets. “We have got to look further afield,” says Neil. Planning work for that is currently underway alongside product roadmap development.

Separate from those endeavours is the Wrightbus plant in Malaysia, which services orders from the Far East. It has 120 employees but is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Zero-emission shift has several influences already

Although zero-emission is the focus for Wrightbus in the UK and Ireland, likely expansion into new territories may influence how long it continues to offer diesel buses for.

Wrightbus StreetDeck of Go North East
Wrightbus will continue to build diesel buses for as long as customers require, says MD Neil Collins, but it is already seeing a clear trend to ZE

They will be built for current customers “for as long as they require them,” but commitments to decarbonisation and to move away from fossil fuels made by some of the UK’s larger operators are already starting to wash through into ordering trends.

“When we talk to UK bus operators, by 2035 they will be fully zero-emission,” says Neil. “If you take the lifespan of a bus as 15 years, decisions are being made around that now.” 2021 production for Wrightbus will see diesel remain the dominant energy source. Forecasts for 2022 already show that zero-emission technologies will take that lead.

“There is a definite year-on-year swing away from diesel,” he continues. As that happens, economies of scale will generally bring down the price of zero-emission buses. But while work by fuel cell supplier Ballard is seeing the cost of its equipment reduce, the price of batteries is not doing the same.

StreetDeck Electroliner: Positive response from operators

That aside, battery-electric currently has a slight lead over hydrogen fuel cell-electric in terms of orders already in hand for 2022. That has been helped by the debut of the StreetDeck Electroliner. It promises a range of up to 200 miles thanks to a maximum of 454kW/h of energy storage. The prototype is out on demonstration and it has been well received.

“The response from every customer that has seen it is that the StreetDeck Electroliner is best in class,” says Neil. “Everything that we set out to design into the bus has been delivered. We have been delighted with the feedback that we have received from the market.” Interest in the battery-electric double-decker is “massive,” he adds, and that is beginning to translate into orders.

Hydrogen combustion still to come?

Both zero-emission technologies will shortly be launched into single-deck by Wrightbus, with production to begin in 2022. Those products will utilise a heavyweight chassis derived from that of the StreetDeck range and they will not form part of the StreetLite family.

Wrightbus StreetDeck zero-emission range
The Wrightbus StreetDeck Electroliner has generated an excellent response from operators, says Neil Collins; orders are in hand already

How much further Wrightbus goes with battery-electric will be dependent on energy density. But the manufacturer has a tool that models route profiles, and before any datalogging takes place, advises which energy source will suit that application best.

An expansion of existing work with hydrogen into combustion is likely in the long term, Neil continues.

“There is no doubt that we will work on that. We are heavily involved with fuel cells, but we will also look at other powertrain availability in zero-emission. The combustion of hydrogen will be something that we look at going forward to see if it offers advantages to our customers and to us as a manufacturer.”

Future strategy formulation now underway

With Neil’s appointment, assembly of the senior team at the new Wrightbus is complete. Chief Executive Buta Atwal, who was quickly installed by Jo Bamford, remains in post with an involvement with the complementary businesses. The three leaders are now working on future strategy.

Delivering the expanding Wrightbus product range in conjunction with Fuze and – where applicable – Ryze will be key to the manufacturer’s future. That couples to an expanded aftersales function and an advanced telematics proposition with predictive maintenance capability.

“That is a very strong offering to the market. There is a huge future for Wrightbus. Our job as the senior team is now to deliver on it,” Neil concludes.