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Thompson Aero snapped up by Chinese aviation giant AVIC

AVIC urged to invest in workers at Portadown aircraft seat firm

Lisa Smyth

The new Chinese owner of aircraft seats manufacturer Thompson Aero in Portadown has been urged to guarantee the job security of its 300-strong workforce in the town.

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has acquired Thompson Aero Seating, which counts Qantas, American Airlines and Aer Lingus among its customers, for an undisclosed sum.

However, it's believed AVIC has spent tens of millions of pounds on its latest acquisition.

But its plans for Thompson Aero, which reported a 25% jump in turnover to £64.9m in June this year, are unclear - prompting calls for clarity on the future of the jobs at the Co Armagh plant.

UUP councillor Arnold Hatch said: "I would think this will be a positive thing for Portadown, as long as it results in investment in the area and reassurance from AVIC, particularly relating to jobs, would be welcome. AVIC appears to be a large and successful company so this would be welcome if it results in investment and even expansion."

Ulster University senior economist Esmond Birnie said it is likely the acquisition will result in investment in the economy. "Thompson Aero Seating is a company producing a very high quality product in a market segment, where Northern Ireland has done very well and gained a large market share," he said.

"The continuing challenge for Northern Ireland is to retain competitiveness and maintain its presence in the supply chains to the really big global players."

“Given that the UK, along with most of the rest of the Western economies, has such a large current account deficit with China, ie we import far more goods from China than we sell back, China has built up a large capital surplus, so it is almost inevitable that some of that will be invested back here in the West.”

However, economist John Simpson said the acquisition of Thompson Aero Seating, which is subject to regulatory approvals, is a disappointing development.

“It seems that as soon as we have a successful company, it’s taken over, and that’s not a good thing in the long run,” he said.

“Thompson Aero has grown to have a nice share of the market, and shown that they are competitive, but instead of local ownership continuing to exploit that potential, it is going to new owners.

“If we have the brains to get thing to this point, how come we haven’t the brains to hold onto it?”

The sale comes just months after it emerged that online bike retailer WiggleCRC was planning to cut about 300 jobs in Northern Ireland.

The company was formed when Wiggle took over Doagh-based Chain Reaction Cycles earlier this year.

Thompson Aero Seating has said it is looking forward to expanding its capacity in light of the deal.

AVIC does not currently manufacture aircraft seats but does make whole aircraft exteriors and helicopters, as well as acting as a subcontractor in the manufacture of parts and components for firms like Boeing and Bombardier.

The Chinese firm will use the acquisition of Thompson Aero Seating to expand into the manufacture of aircraft seats.

A statement from the Co Armagh company announcing the sale said it welcomes the backing of AVIC and becoming part of a broader offering of cabin interior products. AVIC is making the deal in partnership with China state-owned investment company CNIC Corporation Limited.

Thompson said that “being underpinned by a strong industrial backer in AVIC will serve to consolidate our continued growth in Northern Ireland”.

It added: “The company expects to expand its current capacity to fulfil its fast growing order book.”

The sale of Thompson Aero Seating follows other major disposals of NI companies earlier this year, including medical technology firm PathXL, which was sold to Philips, and Delta Print and Packaging in west Belfast, which was sold to Huhtamaki. UTV Media plc was sold to ITV in a deal finalised in February.

Thompson, which is based in Seagoe Industrial Park, was founded by James Thompson, though he sold all his shares.

Along with B/E Aerospace in Kilkeel, Co Down, it is one of two major aeroplane seat manufacturers in Northern Ireland.

In 2014, the firm won investment of £1.7m from Invest NI to help create 85 jobs — part of a total investment of £10m.

AVIC is a large business managed by Chinese central government. Its purchase of Thompson Aero makes it the third Chinese company to buy a Northern Ireland asset in recent months, after SDC Trailers in Toome was sold to CIMC Vehicles, and renewable energy firm Gaelectric sold 14 windfarms, including seven in Northern Ireland, to part of China General Nuclear Power Group.

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