Hydrogen evangelist sees 'dawning of an age'
JCB heir Jo Bamford aims to change public transport with Ballymena firm Wrightbus
Lord Anthony Bamford with Jo Bamford.
Jo Bamford is really busy on the day we speak. He is torn between so many demands that he needs to split our Zoom conversation into two parts and squeeze several radio interviews into the gap. Fair enough; as one of Britain’s foremost advocates for the hydrogen economy, his eyes are on a landmark announcement from 10 Downing Street about the UK’s plans for a “green industrial revolution” that mentions, among other things, hydrogen.
The initiative is fairly light on detail but for Bamford, who has embraced the alternative fuel as his life’s work, it’s of “one small step for man” magnitude. He allows that he is “really excited”.“It’s great the government is talking about this. We need this to start happening,” he says.
Bamford is an evangelist for the use of hydrogen in transport, believing in the fuel’s potential both from a commercial and philosophical standpoint and trying hard to get others to believe in it too. He owns Ryse, a hydrogen producer that wants to build a network of plants, and a year ago rescued Wrightbus, the bus maker in Ballymena, Co Antrim, that dissolved messily with the loss of 1,200 jobs. Wrap the two up in a bow and a government’s zero-emissions public transport problems are solved.
“I don’t need to do any of this. I don’t mean it in an arrogant way. . . I don’t actually need to work. But at the same time I’ve got a bee in my bonnet,” he says affably.
Bamford is rich, very rich, and is being honest when he says he could easily afford to sit around if he chose. His grandfather was Joseph Bamford, middle name Cyril, the man who brought the world JCB diggers after starting out selling farm trailers from a lock-up shed in 1945.
JCB senior handed the business over to his son Anthony (now Lord Bamford) in the 1970s with the business thriving throughout, leaving a family now estimated to be worth more than £4 billion (€4.5 billion).
Today’s Jo Cyril Bamford is usually described as the JCB “heir” in the media and even has the initials to suit. He isn’t too keen on talking about the subject, preferring to focus on the work ethic that has passed through generations of his family.
“I suppose to a lot of people I have got loads of money – it’s come through hard work,” he says. He has always been conscious of his parents’ work ethic, his father at JCB and his mother, Carole Bamford, as founder of the successful Daylesford Organic farming and lifestyle business. Both still work every day at age 75 and both ensured young Jo put time in within their respective businesses while on holidays from his fancy boarding school – bolting together engines on the 6am shift for one and birthing lambs on the farm for the other.
“I learned the value of the life we have,” he says.
After university, Bamford spent 14 years really learning the business of JCB before stepping out on his own with Ryse and then Wrightbus. He likens JCB to “a tanker” which, while being highly entrepreneurial, did not offer the right conditions for his alternative-energy endeavours.
Like any good evangelist, Bamford has all his key messages at his fingertips at all times. They go like this: if we want zero-emissions public transport we need to choose between batteries or hydrogen but hydrogen is better for efficiency and range. Plus China has the battery market sewn up while hydrogen is still at a stage where opportunities are presenting themselves. What’s more, hydrogen vehicles don’t create pressure on the grid the way batteries do. They refuel in minutes as opposed to needing hours of charging and can be relied upon to maintain governments’ revenues from fuel taxes.
The biggest problem standing in hydrogen’s way, even for those who love it, is the cost; building a hydrogen bus costs twice as much as a diesel bus as things stand, while battery buses have stolen a march in the market.
“To get hydrogen really going, we’ve got to get it to cost the same. . . exactly what happened with Henry Ford when he did his factories, you know, you get the volume up and you get the lowest cost base. China did that 10 years ago with batteries and they have 73 per cent of the world’s battery market.”
To get to this point, Bamford needs scale and subsidies. He says an order of 3,000 buses from the UK government – which promised to deliver 4,000 zero-emission buses before Covid hit – would allow him to achieve this with Wrightbus and he has asked for £500 million in supports. Think of it as the next wind, he says.
“Wind now is cheap but 15 years ago it was expensive. You have to subsidise it to get it going but, once you’ve got it going, you’ve got the lowest cost base and you can then export around the world.”
The UK government is where it’s immediately at in scale terms but Bamford also sees opportunities in the Republic of Ireland and the wider European Union where hydrogen forms a central part of a multibillion-euro Green Deal announced over the summer.
“I think Dublin should try and hook some of that cash because frankly that would be great,” he says with a grin and an eye on Ballymena, pointing out that Ireland has everything a country needs for making hydrogen: wind and water.
“Let’s go,” he says gleefully. “If we don’t, other markets will take this. We’re at the dawning of an age and it’s all up for grabs.”
Wrightbus has already done a small deal in the Republic, with three hydrogen double-decker buses scheduled to hit the roads in Dublin over the coming months. Bamford says that if 600 such vehicles could be slated for the island, he would look at setting up a hydrogen production facility here, thus allowing for a web of hydrogen business to be created. It’s wishful thinking at the moment – he has not yet met the Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan – but this is the kind of level on which a pioneer operates.
“I can’t invest in a big hydrogen-production facility if I don’t have a customer for it,” he says, adding that decarbonising the bus fleet, in the North and the Republic would lead to 1,000 jobs in Ballymena.
“It’s not beyond the wit of man to save your own country’s jobs and also go green at the same time. That’s the kind of joined-up thinking that needs to be done.”
A gentle suggestion that politics usually intervenes in such decisions here prompts an acknowledgment that “Ireland is a lot more political than I ever thought it was”, but Bamford is an optimist and he pushes on.
“I would have thought that going green was something everybody could agree on and wouldn’t that be cool as a north-south project to do together? You’ve got a green Minister for Transport. Green is something that can be apolitical.”
Bamford is buzzing now, moving on to finance, wondering about setting up an Irish hub for hydrogen finance in the mould of the long-established aviation finance sector.
“Why don’t you develop a Dublin hydrogen finance organisation? You’re very good at that.”
The ideas are many but back with the reality on the factory floor, this has not been the best year to take over a bus maker, with traffic massively diminished and future budgets more than strapped. Bamford says the business will break even for its first year out of bankruptcy but acknowledges that fresh orders need to come soon. He reluctantly puts a pin in Easter as the date where things would start to “get tight” without them.
When he took over Wrightbus in 2019 after a scrappy negotiation period, Ballymena was reeling from the loss of what was one of the area’s most profitable and reliable employers for close to seven decades. The family-owned company – which had won glory when it supplied a fleet of double-decker “Boris buses” to London when Johnson was the city’s mayor – was profitable as recently as 2016 but had suffered in a wider move from diesel to electric power.
The story of the group’s demise played out over several summer weeks during which a drip-feed of details emerged about some £15 million in donations paid out over a number of years to an evangelical religious charity run by the son of Wrightbus’s founder and the then largest shareholder.
By the time Bamford got the keys to the factory, just 45 staff remained. He brought this number back up to 700 but Covid led to about 100 being let go a few months ago.
“I think the bus business is okay. We’ve had to make some really tough decisions, we’ve had to cut our cloth according to what the market looks like and those aren’t easy on a human being. I feel very responsible for these people.”
Always the salesman, he adds: “A nice order from Dublin would be very helpful.”
Bamford admits that he “hadn’t been on a bus much in my life” before getting involved in Wrightbus and wasn’t even looking to buy a bus company until he got a phone call from “a character with a slightly scary name” one day.
The character turned out to be Ian Paisley jnr, DUP MP for Ballymena, who was desperately looking to save jobs in his constituency. Emphasising his apolitical credentials once more,Bamford says: “I don’t really know the politics, I don’t understand the politics.” But he has been impressed by Paisley, describing him as the best local MP he has encountered and emphasising that the politician did the chasing on the rescue.
“He champions us in parliament; I don’t know of many MPs who would do that.”
Bamford isn’t keen to go into detail about the deal and definitely won’t spill on the controversy surrounding it. “I’d never bought a business in my life so I had nothing to compare it to,” he says. And, to be clear, he is “delighted” he came to Northern Ireland.
He sees the North’s economy as being at a tipping point but isn’t keen to discuss the whole business of Brexit, aside from advocating free trade and suggesting the North “play to both of its strengths”.
“NI has one of the biggest opportunities in front of it at this point in time. How it reacts and interacts with southern Ireland and Europe and Britain is going to be very key.”
Bamford’s father, Lord Bamford, a prominent donor to the UK conservatives, has openly supported Brexit in the past, going so far as to write to his employees during the referendum campaign to outline why he would vote to leave the EU.
“I am a businessman, I just play what’s in front of me,” says the Lord’s son, describing Brexit as “difficult territory”.
“I am pretty much kind of conflicted by the whole thing. I’m kind of somewhere in the middle.”
Back in more comfortable terrain, Bamford foresees two extreme scenarios for Wrightbus on the basis that environmental considerations mean no diesel buses will be sold in Europe in five years’ time.
If the zero-emissions bet goes in the direction of batteries, China will win because it already builds 95 per cent of battery-run buses and “there won’t be a bus-building business in the UK” after seven or eight years. The flip side, however, is that hydrogen emerges as the winner and the UK manages to present itself as an epicentre of manufacturing, winning the supply chain at the same time. This is obviously Bamford’s preferred ending, or starting point, his eyes lighting up again with all the potential.
“I’m not stopping with buses. I’ve got a bunch of highly-skilled engineers . . . who can set their hand to other things.” Lorries and rubbish trucks are the next obvious hydrogen candidates, he suggests, but he clearly doesn’t want to stop there. He says we’re sitting at the start of a “100-year energy super cycle, like Shell and BP at the beginning of the last century”.
“Hydrogen is quite logical and it’s quite simple. Fundamentally the most difficult thing to change is people.”