Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus collapse: Two bidders in talks to buy Ballymena firm

Ray of hope for collapsed firm as Paisley reveals buyers’ interest

Wrightbus staff stage a peaceful protest outside Green Pastures Church
Wrightbus staff stage a peaceful protest outside Green Pastures Church
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

Two "credible" bidders are vying to buy collapsed Ballymena bus manufacturer Wrightbus, DUP MP Ian Paisley has said.

The North Antrim MP last night revealed that one of the firms is from England while the other is based in the USA. Mr Paisley said "targeted efforts" are under way to secure a buyer and he hopes that a deal could be concluded by the end of next week.

The details of the bidders emerged in a letter sent to councillors ahead of a special meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council last night to discuss the collapse of Wrightbus and the fate of the 1,200 workers who were laid off last week.

Urging councillors to back moves to get a deal over the line "at this time of terrible economic news", Mr Paisley said: "Let us together see a Phoenix rising from these ashes and secure bus building in Ballymena for another generation."

Deloitte, which has been appointed as the administrators of the company, also briefed councillors last night.

Mr Paisley said: "I am pleased to report that I have spoken directly with two bidders, one a UK owned group and the other North American.

"I engaged with one several weeks ago and encouraged him back on the table and with the other three weeks ago. I encouraged him to put in writing to the administrator his intent.

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Wrightbus staff stage a peaceful protest outside Green Pastures Church
Wrightbus staff stage a peaceful protest outside Green Pastures Church
Brothers David, Darryl and Gareth Robinson along with their brother-in-law Gary McMaster, who have a combined service of 75 years at Wrightbus

"Both of these companies have engaged with the administrator and under the changed circumstances that now pertain this offers hope at this difficult time but be of no doubt much work still needs to be completed."

Mr Paisley said he has commitment from the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his senior team that the Government "will support a new buyer and that commercial assistance will be made known to them".

He added that a large amount of a £220m Government fund to purchase buses will be earmarked for a Northern Ireland company. However Mr Paisley stressed that more support "in the region of £40 million" will be required, including a package of direct support, more than likely fed through Translink "to order a new and much needed supply of public sector transport vehicles".

Wrightbus staff stage a peaceful protest outside Green Pastures Church
Wrightbus staff stage a peaceful protest outside Green Pastures Church
Some of the Wrightbus staff who protested outside Green Pastures Church yesterday
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 29th September 2019 Protest outside Green Pastures Church in Ballymena by former Wrightbus employees. The bus manufacturing business shut last week after a deal with a buyer fell through with the loss of 1,400 jobs. The church is closely associated with the factory and its owners and sits on the same land. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The MP said the issue of the ownership of Wrightbus land is likely to be addressed in any sale.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Wrightbus received more than £9m in state funding since 2002.

Over the last 17 years, Northern Ireland's business development agency, Invest NI, gave the stricken firm's parent company, Wrights Group, £9.05m in grants, The Irish Times reported. Invest NI confirmed the figures and also said Wrights Group had a loan of £2.5m in place.

Since the collapse of the firm last week, it is understood Invest NI is considering attempting to recoup some of the money.

In 2014 alone, the agency offered Wrights Group £1.8m towards a £14m research and development programme.

Wrights Group is owned by the Cornerstone Group, which is also controlled by the Wright family and is not part of the administration process. The former director of Wrightbus, Jeff Wright, has come under fire due to donations Green Pastures Church, where he is the lead pastor, received from the Cornerstone Group.

Upbeat: Ian Paisley
Upbeat: Ian Paisley

From 2010-17 the Cornerstone Group gave the church a total of £15.38m in charitable donations as part of their "commitment to Christian, evangelical and other charitable activities", according to the group's accounts.

Accounts for 2017 show Cornerstone donated £4.15m, while the business made a loss of £1.7m. In previous years, however, the group made donations while also making a profit.

Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton said the rules they put in place when offering investment were followed.

"On every company whenever we put grant assistance in, we put restrictions on the volume or value of drawings that can be made out of that company," he said. "Clearly, we can't say to a company that we can't give you grant assistance you can take nothing out by way of dividend."

Belfast Telegraph