The chairman of Northern Ireland bus manufacturer Wrightbus has said he is hopeful that Brexit negotiations will not disrupt key export business to mainland Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Mark Nodder, whose company is one of the leading producers of double-decker buses, says that while he does not see an immediate, direct effect on his business, the imposition of a hard border could damage the company’s supply chain imports, while also tarnishing cross-border sales.
“We do a lot of business across our own uniquely positioned land border with the Republic of Ireland. A lot of our buses sail up and down to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and we have a fantastic relationship with the transport authority in Dublin, we’ve been a significant supplier to them now for 10or 15 years. We obviously don’t want anything to compromise that, it doesn’t look like it will, all parties seem determined to make it a success, let’s hope they do,” Nodder said in an interview with GTR.
EU and UK negotiators this month finalised the terms of the transition deal that will be in effect for two years, after the UK formally exits the EU next year. In the absence of no overriding agreement, this will effectively see Northern Ireland remain part of the customs union and single market – a scenario which could make it more attractive as an investment destination, but which will also lead to minimal disruption in trade with neighbouring Irish companies.
Nodder was speaking on a trade mission to Hong Kong, where Wrightbus has been exporting for more than 15 years. The Ballymena-based company also sells buses to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, with these countries’ affinity for double-decker buses being one post-colonial hangover that has been particularly good for business.
With Brexit set to take effect in 2019, the Ballymena company is on the lookout for further export opportunities. It is targeting parts of Latin America, but the primary focus remains Asia Pacific, where Wrightbus can capitalise on an assembly plant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where buses that are shipped flat-packed from Northern Ireland can be put together.
“We’re continuing to grow in Hong Kong. We’ve done a lot of work through a partnership with Volvo in particular, our bus bodywork is on top of their chassis. But we’re working with our customers to introduce niche products of our own, the first of them arrived a few weeks ago. This is a smaller, London-sized double-decker, with a Mercedes engine,” he says.
The company is currently developing a hydrogen-powered double-decker bus, which would be the world’s first, as it seeks to meet demand in the UK and further afield for climate-friendly vehicles. With Wrightbus already an important supplier to Hong Kong bus operator Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB), which is under pressure to reduce its own carbon footprint, further exports would appear to be in the offing.
“Everything we produce now has to be environmentally friendly. All of our buses in London now, for example, are hybrid electric. By definition, they’re low emission. We also manufacture electric vehicles which are zero emission. We’re trialling the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered double-decker because that’s a zero-emissions alternative to battery buses. But even our bread and butter products are very clean. We have data that shows they’re significantly cleaner than cars. It surprises people,” Nodder says.
The company faces stiff competition from around the world, but notably from China. Wrightbus previously kept an assembly plant in Guangzhou, South China, but relocated to Malaysia due to the challenges of doing business in China. Nodder says the company also faced concerns over the quality of the assembled product in Guangzhou but says competition from Mainland companies is fierce, with quality improving all the time.
“There’s phenomenal competition coming from China. The world’s biggest bus manufacturers are based in China. Some of the cutting-edge technology is coming from China. So I am certainly not going to knock any of my competitors from China. But we try to do things differently, we try to avoid making a homogenised product. Wherever we can, we try to be innovative. We believe we are at the cutting edge of technology but you can never be complacent. The Chinese manufacturers are very good and most European bus makers would say they’re catching up very fast, so we have to do things very differently,” he says.