When Buta Atwal took the helm of Wrightbus in Ballymena in 2019, coffee cups still littered the office desks and buses were standing half assembled on the factory floor. One of the North's most emblematic businesses had fallen into receivership six weeks previously.
Atwal, 53, hadn't planned to be a bus company chief executive, despite a quarter of a century in the vehicle industry at Toyota and JCB, the construction equipment maker. In fact, the company's rescue by JCB heir Jo Bamford was almost accidental: two other potential buyers had emerged and Bamford and Atwal were pressed by a local politician to show interest simply to help ensure competitive bids.
But the two other parties involved in the bidding process backed out. “We were the only ones left standing and, I’ll be honest with you, it was a big risk at the time because this isn’t a Tesla ... it’s a dour industry,” Atwal says. But he had plans to change all that, eyeing “the potential ... to become a tech business, not a vehicle manufacturer”.
By tech, Atwal means hydrogen power – a nascent clean fuel. The company – known for the iconic red "Boris buses" commissioned by London's then-mayor Boris Johnson a decade ago – is the world's first producer of hydrogen double-decker buses.
Atwal wants to see the hydrogen technology that Wrightbus is developing transferred to other similar-sized vehicles, from refuse trucks to tractors to ambulances, used by local authorities that are already among the company’s clients.
Hydrogen may be the ambition – but added to that, the prospect of using a company that was set up in a tin shed in 1946 as a launch pad for the technology is what clinched the decision to buy Wrightbus, despite initial indifference.
But the problem for Atwal, as he prepared to revive and reinvent the bus builder, was that consumer demand had not yet caught up with the vision. And after Wrightbus sank from a £10.7 million (€12.9 million) pretax profit in 2016 to a loss in the first eight months of 2019 of £19.5 million, Atwal had to be pragmatic.
"Our first bus launch was a double-decker battery bus, because that's what the market was looking for," he says. "Ultimately, we will be where the customer wants us to be and any business that says any different will be bankrupt. It will be Kodak – selling technologies that customers don't want."
His style has paid off. Wrightbus was back in the black for the 15 months to December 2020 (the most recent available results), reporting a £1.4 million profit.
Atwal drew heavily on his training at Toyota, where he worked for a decade in manufacturing, training and development, for his turnaround strategy: gather data, formulate a plan and then get on with it.
“As soon as you’ve got enough data to make a decision, make a good, quick decision ... and don’t be too worried about making the wrong decisions because the reality is you are going to make some wrong decisions,” he says.
But that style of management was one he had to learn, he admits. “The Toyota side was less of my natural game. It really stiffened me up in areas where I wasn’t so strong.”
Tapping into emotional intelligence – a phrase he uses repeatedly – came more readily. It’s the product, he says, of growing up with four sisters and having a wife and daughter.
His approach needs “hard skills about data and management styles”. But as he puts it: “Changing a culture and understanding what’s successful about the old culture, what wasn’t successful, and then using your own emotional intelligence to drive those new practices, is equally important.”
Atwal is the son of Punjabi immigrants to the UK who grew up in Derbyshire. He says his passion for football – which he plays twice a week – taught him that success relies on teamwork.
“I understand that the emotional side to a team is just as important as the mental side of it ... If as an organisation you’re not connected, then that is not a success,” he says, describing his role not as leader but “co-ordinator” or “enabler” to deliver strategy profitably.
With his approachable manner, easy laugh and no-nonsense style, he instigated meetings with managers to see if new strategies were working, He continued his focus on sharing and communicating by establishing “birthday meetings” where employees – from the shop floor up – have an open forum meeting with Atwal over tea and biscuits. For a business that laid off 1,200 workers when Wrightbus went to the wall, he sees that as a way of engaging staff.
He himself has to balance the passionate hydrogen ambitions of his chair, Bamford – with whom he worked for 17 years at JCB and as chief executive of Ryze Hydrogen – with both today’s market realities and changing future dynamics.
Demand today is for battery buses, but just “shoving batteries into a diesel bus”, as he says competitors were doing, would have been inefficient. Although he inherited only two engineers among the 46 staff still on the books to wind down the company during the disposal, he revamped the design to make battery and hydrogen-powered buses as similar as possible, to drive down costs and help customers transition to hydrogen in the future.
“We designed a bespoke battery bus by putting the batteries into the chassis, by improving the layout of the bus, by showing why an EV [electric vehicle] or a hydrogen bus [is better] than a modified diesel bus. And because of that kind of vision, our customers have started to get on board,” he says.
What went wrong
Atwal diplomatically skirts over the subject of what went wrong at Wrightbus, saying it “fell on poor times” because of “mismanagement” and a lack of business controls. While his own Sikh faith is important to him, he avoids discussion of how the group’s former parent company had donated millions of pounds to an evangelical church, angering laid-off workers.
He is happy with the company’s direction of travel. He now flies into Northern Ireland from Derbyshire for two days a week at headquarters – a site in Ballymena that Wrightbus moved to after tobacco group JTI Gallaher closed down. To temper the grey local weather, he keeps temperatures sweltering inside his office – a taste for the heat he developed when working for JCB in India for four years.
Brexit has “of course” proved a problem with additional administration but Atwal is unstressed. That is another of his work philosophies. “I’d rather be enjoying my job than do a job that’s financially better for me,” he says. “I’ve always said, if you don’t enjoy it, do something else. Don’t distress your body ... Look at something else that you’re good at, and do it.”
But he is delighted with the turnround challenge that came to him.
“How many people have been given an opportunity to turn around a business ... learn a different technology, different industry? That’s so interesting. That’s what motivates me.”
Who is your leadership hero?
Alan Jones, former chair emeritus at Toyota UK. He was such a presence on merging the Japanese style into a UK industry, but really connecting with the business. When I talk about being on the shop floor, talking to people, communicating, he was the epitome of that. I was a young guy, 24, trying to make a name for myself, but he knew who I was. I've tried to replicate that myself.
If you were not a CEO, what would you be?
Anything that made me happy, to be honest. What I like doing is solving problems and I like figuring my way out of a puzzle, and so anything that gave me mental stimulus, that’s what I’d be doing. I’m a diehard Derby County supporter. I’d have loved to be a footballer.
What was the first leadership lesson you learned?
Plan-do-check-action. It’s from [William Edwards] Deming but the Japanese adopted it. Basically, it means before you do anything, plan what you cannot do and do all your research, then do it. Then while you’re doing it, check your milestones. And if things go awry against your plan, action the changes so you keep the momentum going. That came from Toyota. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022