Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus: 1,200 jobs lost at Ballymena firm on dark day for Northern Ireland economy


Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

The family behind Wrightbus has said it is "devastated" at the collapse of the firm and loss of 1,200 jobs on one of the worst days for Northern Ireland's economy in recent memory.

Its board appointed administrators to the insolvent Ballymena company yesterday, ending a 73-year success story which had employed tens of thousands of people over three generations.

Around 1,200 people were told yesterday that they were jobless with immediate effect - a far sharper and more immediate toll than anticipated.

All but 50 of the workforce have now gone, with astonishing scenes as workers spilled out of the premises, pushing their toolboxes along the ground.

The administration of the company had been anticipated for months with the company acknowledging cash flow problems in July when it announced it was looking for investors.

Talks over a sale with at least two potential buyers finally collapsed on Friday.

It's also the third major employer to close its doors in Ballymena over the last few years.

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The closures of Michelin and JTI Gallaher led to 1,600 job losses. Wrights Group later acquired Gallaher's old premises.

Yesterday economic development agency Invest NI said it had given the business a £2.5m loan at the end of June to help it find a buyer.

A video circulating on Facebook showed co-founder Sir William Wright, who set up the firm with his father William in 1946, telling staff that the family had poured in their own money to ensure they were paid over the last two weeks.

Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Co-founder: Sir William Wright

The family is also believed to be standing by £15m in charitable donations made by its ultimate parent company Cornerstone Group over the last six years.

Wrights Group ran out of money after a downturn in many of its key markets but has also faced criticism for giving away so much to charity.

The Cornerstone Group's latest accounts report it donated £4.15m in donations to Christian and charitable causes, while posting an overall loss of £1.17m.

The family said yesterday: "We are devastated at the news that the company has been placed in administration by the Wrights Group board.

"Global changes from diesel to electric in bus technology have caused a sharp decline in demand for buses in the UK.

"As a shortfall became apparent, one of the steps taken was to move work from our Malaysia facility back to Ballymena to secure jobs here.

"These factors have resulted in significant losses at Wrightbus which our family has been covering for over a year.

"This was undertaken to both protect the workforce and the engineering expertise in the company. It simply became impossible to sustain that level of support. We have worked hard to support the restructuring team based in Wrightbus, and we are confident that a buyer for the business can still be found.

"We would like to thank the bank for supporting the company over 70 years and in particular the last six months.

"Since it was established in 1946 from a tin shed, Wrightbus has become a world leader in bus manufacture and technology, employing tens of thousands of people.

"The company has built a culture and tradition of expertise and innovation in the Ballymena area which is recognised across the globe.

"The production of the world-famous London Routemaster is just one example of the many achievements of the firm and we are hopeful that a new buyer will be found and that work at the factory can continue."

North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley said that under administration, all staff would be entitled to statutory redundancy. "My hope is that a buyer comes in quickly and rehires two-thirds of them," he said.

Reaction poured in from all walks of life. Rev Mark McConnell, rector of St Patrick's, Ballymena, said: "My thoughts go to the individual workers and their families with this terrible news today ... I know that the company and its employees will be in the prayers of the faith community here and we hope that there can still be a solution, full or partial, to reverse this terrible news."

One person in touch with the Wright family claimed it has stumped up £500,000 to cover staff wages over the last two weeks, as well as spending a total of £23m over nearly two years on relocating premises from Malaysia to Ballymena.

Alastair Hamilton, chief executive of Invest NI, said: "The Wrights Group has long been a leading light in innovation and manufacturing and it is deeply sad to see it placed into administration. This is a very sad day for the company and all its workers and we know how unsettling this will be for them and their families.

"We, and the Department for the Economy, have been working extensively with the company and UK Government departments in the hope of avoiding this decision, including providing a loan to help buy the company time while it sought a buyer for the business. It is therefore deeply disappointing that despite our best efforts there is not a more positive outcome at this stage. We will continue to work closely with the company and the administrator through this process."

Deloitte confirmed that its staff Michael Magnay and Peter Allen had been appointed as joint administrators to Wrights Group Ltd, Wrightbus Ltd, Wright En-Drive Ltd, Wright Composites Ltd and Metallix Ltd.

Michael Magnay, joint administrator, said: "It is bitterly disappointing for all concerned that despite extensive efforts over recent months, it has not been possible to find a buyer who wanted to maintain the business as a going concern.

"We recognise the companies are crucially important employers in Ballymena, and this will be devastating news for those who worked there, their families and the town, which has already suffered from a number of manufacturing closures in recent years. We will continue to support employees through this difficult time.

"The joint administrators will explore all remaining options for the business and assets, and would encourage any parties with an interest to contact them."

DUP councillor Timothy Gaston said the appointment had been the last resort but insisted it was not the end of the road for the business. "We are working with Wrightbus and other key partners to offer our full support to all affected by this process.

"Our area has suffered more than most in recent years, with the closures of JTI and Michelin in particular, but this is not the end of the road for Wrightbus.

"It is vital we all continue to work together to ensure the future of this world-leading company and its workforce, which for many of us includes family and close friends."

Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor said the news was "absolutely devastating" for staff, for Ballymena and the wider manufacturing sector.

Jackie Pollock, regional secretary at trade union Unite, called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson "to 'take back control' and nationalise to invest in securing UK bus manufacturing capacity".

Belfast Telegraph