Wrightbus boss looks to Europe as zero emission bus maker on track to hit 2,000 staff this year

Ballymena manufacturer expects to achieve half a billion pounds in revenue in 2023

Jean-Marc Gales facing the camera with a manufacturing floor behind him.
Jean-Marc Gales, who took over as chief executive of Wrightbus in April 2023. (elaine hill photography)

The new boss of Wrightbus has revealed the Ballymena bus-maker is on course to hit 2,000 staff and half a billion pounds in revenue this year.

Jean-Marc Gales, who took over as CEO in April 2023, said the company had also grown its staff and infrastructure on mainland Europe, as it seeks to expand its market presence across the continent.

A new aftersales centre has been established in Cologne, Germany, with a number of new European deals understood to be in the pipeline.

Wrightbus is also preparing to revive its Malaysian factory base, with an eye on targeting the markets in Hong Kong and Singapore from 2025.

Four years after Jo Bamford bought Wrightbus out of administration with just 50 staff, the company has been reborn as a zero emission bus specialist, employing 1,650 people with a production line geared toward electric and hydrogen technology.

One year ago the JCB heir picked up the phone to ask Jean-Marc Gales if he would be interested in coming to run his Ballymena business.

The Luxembourg native’s stellar career in the auto industry has taken him from senior roles in BMW and Mercedes to Lotus and Stellantis, formed by the merger of the Italian–American conglomerate Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the French PSA Group.

He describes the latter two leadership roles as “turnaround” projects.

So what motivated an industry veteran to up sticks from a comfortable semi-retirement in northern Italy to take the reins at a factory in Ballymena?

“It’s the challenge of the turnaround… I love it.

Jean-Marc Gales.
Jean-Marc Gales. (elaine hill photography)

Aware of Sir William Wright’s manufacturing legacy, he said: “I knew about Wrightbus. I knew it was a pioneer.

“Naturally I was fascinated by the idea of Wrightbus and the ecosystem Jo has built up with hydrogen.

“Personally I get excited by changing things. It’s making things better, improving things.

“The turnaround part, but also the scaling… Creating value and creating jobs, which I love to do.

“When I joined we had 1,000 people and now this year we’ll advance to 2,000.

“When I joined we were at eight buses per week, now we’re at 22 buses per week.”

He said the company is now profitable and is looking into setting up nightshift production lines.

“We are operating in a worldwide market. Our competition is mostly in China at the moment.

“A year ago we had 200 zero emission buses on the road, now we have 700. In a year it’s going to 1,700.

“It’s a vital factor of the Ballymena economy. Ballymena is growing again, everything is growing.

“We’re UK leader now, we want to become European leader and we want to be a world leading company.”

Mr Gales’ career included two years as a lobbyist for the car industry in Brussels as head of Clepa, the voice of automotive suppliers in the EU.

He said the recent deal to provide certainty around Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit access to both the EU and GB markets was “fantastic”.

“I believe we are uniquely placed,” he said.

“There is still work to do in the UK and we are growing Ballymena.”

But he said a manufacturing facility in continental Europe is being considered.

“We have been discussing that for years. Even with the Wright family when they were here.

“Having a factory in Europe would certainly be an advantage if you want to grow in the European market.”

Jean-Marc Gales, chief executive of Wrightbus.
Jean-Marc Gales, chief executive of Wrightbus.

Wrightbus has so far secured two deals in western Europe, but more orders are understood to be in the pipeline.

“We have now built up our European sales team. We do have an aftersales facility in Cologne in Germany.

“That it is our entry to the German market and the European market. But we will not stop there.

“We want to grow in France, ‘Benelux’, Austria and Switzerland and we have announced an import agent in Italy.

“We have clear plans for the that growth, that’s what we want to do.”

Mr Gales’ current arrangements involve spending most of his time working in Northern Ireland.

“I’m not somebody who flies in for a couple of days. I wanted to stay, just to make sure this is done.”

Asked to comment on his long-term commitment, he quipped: “Sixty is the new 40!”

“Look, I will work for another ten years. And I’m glad to stay here.

“I’m responsible for the people here.

“I’m passionate about this, I love this and I want this to grow into a big company.”