Ballymena’s Wrightbus is celebrating after securing a multi-million pound order for 500 buses.
The company, which employs 2,000 people in Co Antrim, will be supplying the vehicles to the Kowloon Motor Bus Company in Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories area.
There are already 500 Wright buses on the regions’ roads following earlier deals.
Company chairman and co-founder William Wright revealed news of the latest multimillion-pound contract win in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Wright, who created the company with his father Robert in 1946, said: “Hong Kong can easily buy buses from China, but they come to us (when they want) quality.”
While he declined to reveal the total value of the deal, he admitted that it came to “quite a bit of money”.
Mr Wright said he was happy with the order and also happy with the outcome of the EU referendum.
The business boss, one of the few industry leaders in Northern Ireland to publicly back a Brexit, condemned the banks’ and stock markets’ “hysterical” reaction to the result.
“When it comes down to it, the European Union has just been about a trade deal – although some of the countries have been trying to make it another America of federal states,” he insisted.
Mr Wright also claimed that EU laws on cigarette packaging had directly resulted in the closure of tobacco giant JTI Gallaher’s factory in Ballymena. The plant is to shut completely next year, although lay-offs have already started.
Tyre maker Michelin is also to close its local plant in 2018, with the loss of 860 jobs.
“What bugs me is that 1,000 people in Ballymena have lost their jobs in tobacco manufacturing at JTI because the EU has stated you can no longer buy 10-packs of cigarettes,” the Wrightbus chairman said.
“That’s supposedly to stop young people smoking, but I’ve checked out prices. A pack of 10 would have cost £3.69 and 20 would cost £6.89. I don’t think anything would stop a young person who wants to smoke from paying an extra £3.”
Returning to the implications of a Brexit, he maintained he was confident that the UK would be able to negotiate strong trade deals with the remaining EU member states.
“German car manufacturers send 20% of their output to the UK, and others, like Renault and Peugeot are in the same situation,” Mr Wright said.
“Those countries will want a decent trade deal as much as the UK (will want one). It’s not sensible for them to want to punish the UK.”
The leading businessman also told how worries over immigration had influenced his pro-Brexit stance. “I do think immigration should be held at a reasonable level,” he said, adding that he was concerned that many immigrants arrived without essential skills.
However, he revealed that his company employed a number of Romanians and said: “We don’t discriminate – all we look for are skilled people.”
Dismissing fears that local firms would suffer in the wake of the EU results, Mr Wright insisted: “We’ve learned ourselves to take these things and find a way around them.”
He also said he was looking forward to meeting London Mayor Sadiq Khan – the successor to Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, who also bought 1,000 buses from his firm.
“I think I will have a lot in common with him,” he added. “Wrightbus started with the two of us in a tin shed, so I know all about austerity – and Sadiq’s parents came over from Pakistan. His father was a bus driver. They had a tough time, but they made it.”
The Wrightbus chairman told how his company did limited business in Europe and had sold only eight buses – to a Dutch customer – there in recent years.
He said most European bus companies were State-owned “and don’t want to take chances and try anything new”, but added: “We have salespeople looking at Europe regularly.”
Rather than focusing on the continent, the company makes many of its sales in Great Britain and the Republic, also exporting vehicles to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and India.
Wrights Group is Ballymena’s biggest employer and with all the closures will soon be its last significant manufacturer.
In its latest results, the company almost more than doubled pre-tax profits to £11.6m on turnover of £297m.