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Margaret Canning: What a difference just three years have made for Wrightbus


Co-founder Sir William Wright and Mark Nodder, who recently left the firm

Co-founder Sir William Wright and Mark Nodder, who recently left the firm

Co-founder Sir William Wright and Mark Nodder, who recently left the firm

Three years ago, Wrightbus in Ballymena was celebrating its 70th birthday, revelling in its unbroken record of seven decades in the same family.

It had turnover of £276m, was spending £6m on research and development and had a plentiful workforce of 2,000 people.

As well as success in home markets, it was also toasting the opening of offices in Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chennai in China and Kuala Lumpur.

Then-chief executive Mark Nodder was quoted attributing the company's success to heritage and a forward-thinking approach to technology and engineering.

Now it's facing unimaginable turbulence as the prospect of administration looms, and no known chief executive at the helm after Mr Nodder left a few months ago. The workforce is also much-depleted at 1,400.

There have been months of frenzied speculation about difficulties at the company, and the reasons behind them.

There's no question that there are international and industry circumstances conspiring against it, including a slowdown in demand for buses in China. The bus market in China decreased by 13.5% in the first three quarters of 2018, while the market at home has also weakened.

Business advisory firm Deloitte announced in July that it was advising the firm on a process to find investors - and since then, there has been even more frenzied speculation. Chinese company BYD was the first overseas buyer to be linked to investment in the firm, though a firm offer did not come. Then Weichai, another Chinese firm, was reported to be in talks, and this time, sounded like a more plausible buyer than BYD.

Weichai then appeared to distance itself from the process - only for rumours to build up quickly that a UK buyer was interested.

Machinery company JCB would have been entering into a new market of public transport with a play for Wrightbus.

And the firms appeared to have something in common, with figureheads - Lord Bamford at JCB and Sir William Wright at Wrightbus - who had both come out in favour of a Leave vote in the EU referendum of June 2016.

The rumours of JCB's involvement gained credence in Ballymena but have been quickly scotched by JCB's spokesman, who has said it has never been involved in talks with Wrightbus at any stage.

The involvement of entrepreneur Darren Donnelly of SDC Trailers was first reported by Sky News on Friday. Sky also said the company would have to call in administrators this week if a deal wasn't concluded.

But yesterday, Mr Donnelly said he had withdrawn from the process, plunging the company's future into even more doubt.

There are deep fears in Ballymena about the impact the loss of Wrightbus would have. It already sustained around 1,600 job losses around two years ago after the departure from the town of tyre giant Michelin and tobacco giant JTI Gallaher's. The former closed in 2018 and the latter in 2016.

But one businessman in the town believes the blow from administration of Wrightbus, if the worst happens, would be more painful. "It could be worse than both combined. With Michelin and JTI Gallaher's, there was a much older workforce, and a lot of them were ready to be pensioned off, anyway.

"And Gallaher's had been the result of two companies in Ballymena and Belfast coming together, so a lot of people travelled from Belfast to work in Gallaher's.

"But with the Wrightbus workers, a lot of them are far younger, and they're from the town itself."

He also muses that the crisis in shipyard Harland & Wolff in Belfast, which has a workforce of 130, has garnered a lot more attention than Wrightbus, including calls from the union for a bail-out by the UK Government.

"There has been a phenomenal volume of noise around H&W and I know it's gotten political there as well, but there's around 100 working there compared to 1,400 in Wrightbus. Compared to H&W, there's been media silence around Wrightbus."

Wrightbus and its 1,400 staff have been on a roller coaster since the beginning of the year, and they're unlikely to have a smoother ride any time soon. As the world of business knows full well, there's no such thing as an unassailable family business.

It's 73 years now since the company was founded by Robert Wright and his son William.

William - now Sir William - will be celebrating his 92nd birthday tomorrow. It's likely to be with uneasy thoughts about the future of the business he started.

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