Doing the Wright thing in Asia

Mark Nodder, Group Managing Director of Wrights Group Ltd., tells the story of how Asia is really driving business for the Ballymena based company.

The Wrights Group was established in 1946 as a father and son business and is still in the ownership of the same family. We have grown to become one of Europe’s leading suppliers of accessible public transport vehicles, and today we employ over 1400 staff at our headquarters in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

Despite our long history, it is only really in the last ten years that we have become seriously focused on growing the business through export markets. Our international ambitions are now very high, with a target to generate 50% of our business through exports. We believe that a big proportion of this will come through Asia, where we have been doing business for the last ten years and continue to find significant opportunities.

In order to achieve our goal we took the decision last year to set up Wrightbus International, a separate organisation with a core team dedicated exclusively to developing and securing export orders. It was a big step for us, but also a real declaration of intent that we were serious about our export potential and growth. So far it has worked well for us as we secured a major three year contract in August 2012 to supply 550 Double Deck bus kits for local assembly in Singapore, for SBS Transit, in conjunction with our chassis partner Volvo.

Our journey into Asia started over ten years ago. In my previous role of business development I went on a tour of the region in 1999 to look first hand at new markets and opportunities. Hong Kong and Singapore were top of my list as they were already buying British buses and had strong business links to the UK. It also helped that they were ‘right hand drive’ and also very public transport orientated cities (there are over 6,500 public transport buses in Hong Kong). They were looking for a high specification, quality product, so the markets were a perfect fit for us.

To explore this potential and eventually secure business I made many return visits, over several years, wearing out much shoe leather in the process! Doing this is crucial to your success in Asia as it takes time to build relationships and create trust. One thing that I’ve learned is that customers need to have faith in you before they’ll ever have faith in your product.

Wrights Group Ltd: Facts and figures

  • Established in 1946 as a family business and still in ownership of the third generation.

  • Based in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, it employs 1400 and is one of the top five manufacturing companies in Northern Ireland with export markets.

  • One in three buses in London is a Wright Group bus and the Company is scheduled to build 600 replacements for the iconic Routemaster bus.

  • Wrightbus International was set up in 2012 to further expand the Company’s business with a target of 50% of business to be generated from overseas markets.

  • For more information: http://www.wrightbus.com

Each return trip helped to cement confidence with my business contacts and in 2000, along with our partner Volvo, who was already established in the market, we secured an order to build a prototype bus in Hong Kong. On delivery, our bus was meticulously scrutinised by the client KMB (Kowloon Motor Bus Company) over a six month period and feedback was given so that we could fine tune the design to meet their requirements. As a result we were then able to tender for and win a much bigger order for 50 buses. This was the start of our collaboration with Volvo in Asia which resulted in the production of 450 buses for the Hong Kong transport system over eight years.

Towards the end of 2010 the tender process and client requirements had changed in Hong Kong. So to maintain our presence in this market we had to adapt our manufacturing processes in Ballymena accordingly. We are now required to supply flat pack (Complete Knocked Down – CKD) bus kits created in Northern Ireland and then shipped out to China for assembly under our supervision.

This of course is to save both labour and transportation costs. It also proved to us that we had to be very flexible and ready to adapt to continue to grow in Asia.

You need to be flexible from day one of doing business in that part of the world. I tell anyone going for the first time to abandon any preconceptions. Customer expectations there are very different from the UK, so it’s best to let the client guide and manage your approach.

You’re also always in for a surprise, as I found out when we launched some of our new buses in the transport system of Hong Kong. Respect for public transport there is much higher than in the UK. Bus drivers are known as ‘Bus Captains’ and are seen as the trusted face of the transport company. Befittingly, they dress and act accordingly. Quite unexpectedly, they even painted our buses gold to make them stand out and the level of interest we received from passengers and onlookers certainly made all the hard work worthwhile.

With significant business growing in Hong Kong and Singapore, we took the decision last year to open a small Wrightbus International office in Singapore and a subsidiary in Hong Kong. Our General Manager for the region is based in Asia, but the Managing Director is still based in Northern Ireland. Having this local presence has really helped and demonstrates that we are there to stay.

In 2009 we started to look more seriously at Singapore and over the last three years we’ve been very busy there. The CKD assembly concept has always been used there, so with our experience of delivering to this specification in Hong Kong, we were ready to do business in Singapore. As a result, in collaboration with Volvo, we won an initial order of 150 buses, followed by another 300. In August 2012 we won our third order for 550 buses for SBS Transit.

The recession has played a significant part in changing our outlook and our business model, making us more flexible to meet the demand in Asia and other overseas markets. Increased volumes in Hong Kong and new opportunities in Singapore were our lifeline when the manufacturing recession was at its deepest in 2009/10 and a third of our UK order book disappeared as a result. Thanks to our Asian business we were able to avoid significant redundancies in our workforce in Northern Ireland.

What my story in Asia shows is that you need determination, patience and adaptability to succeed in the region. Don’t expect to be an overnight sensation. You have to be in it for the long-haul and really work at building and nurturing relationships to secure trust. It’ll be worth it in the end though as you establish credibility, enduring partnerships and relationships that deliver business and keep your workforce happy.

Mark’s top tips for doing business in Singapore and Hong Kong:

  • Research the markets very carefully and understand customer needs, more often than not a UK product solution will need to be adapted for the Asian market.

  • Visit often but leave your preconceptions behind. Go with an open mind and listen to advice and feedback you receive there.

  • Accept that you need to invest in the long-haul as it takes time and effort to build strong and fruitful relationships – be persistent, courteous and respectful.

  • Both cities are very dynamic and ambitious – they have a relentless work ethic and are very determined in business. Don’t be overwhelmed by this but embrace their energy and learn from them.

Sectors: Automotive
Countries: Far East and South East Asia
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