Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus faces questions over £15m donation and rent request

Unite union officials George Brash (right) and Colin Graham leave Wrightbus plant yesterday
Unite union officials George Brash (right) and Colin Graham leave Wrightbus plant yesterday
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Jeff Wright, the son of Wrightbus founder Sir William Wright, asked a Chinese company for annual rent of around £1m in a potential sale of the stricken firm which nearly got over the line, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

A deal would have preserved the jobs of 1,200 workers in Ballymena and saved the public purse around £13m in redundancy.

Wrightbus shareholder Jeff Wright is believed to have sought rent of around £1m from a bidder, believed to be Weichai, for company property including the former JTI Gallaher's site as part of a deal.

A separate company owned by the Wright family owns the property used by the now defunct business - with the business paying rent to the Wrights.

It's believed that the level of rent became a stumbling block in the deal.

Jeff Wright has come under fire for his involvement in the Green Pastures Church in Ballymena, which has received charitable donations of around £15m in the last six years through Cornerstone Group, Wrights Group's parent company.

Last night a spokesman for the Wright family said that a rental agreement for sites had been reached but that "the bidder" - believed to be Chinese giant Weichai - pulled out last Friday.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in an interview with the BBC last night, referred to land issues in comments about the company.

As London Mayor, Mr Johnson had placed a large order for New Routemasters made by Wrightbus, later known as the 'Boris Bus'.

Jeff Wright, lead pastor of Green Pastures Church
Jeff Wright, lead pastor of Green Pastures Church

"As I think you may know, the negotiations got very close and there was a particular problem that came up to do with the ownership of the land. We want to sort it out, we are going to do what we can to help," he said.

Staff who have worked for the company for around 30 years will receive only statutory redundancy, and only those with two years service will qualify.

The maximum redundancy anyone will be entitled to is £15,000.

It's estimated that around 600 staff could be entitled to the maximum of £15,000, giving a bill of £9m - and on the basis that remaining staff get an average of £7,000, that will result in a total bill of £13.2m.

The company's financial situation was so stricken last week that it could not pay staff. Instead, Sir William Wright and his daughter Lorraine Rock paid staff two weeks' wages of £590,000 from their own funds.

They have also said they've spent £23m on relocating work from Malaysia.

Last Thursday night, staff were told that a deal which would have preserved their jobs was imminent. But by the following day, two potential deals, one with Weichai and a second party, believed to be businessman Jo Bamford, whose hydrogen fuel company has already worked with Wrightbus, were in tatters.

It's been claimed that Jeff Wright was to meet Mr Bamford's advisors to discuss a deal but they didn't show up.

And it's understood he rejects any responsibility for the collapse of the other deal - including any suggestion the rent was unreasonable.

A family spokesman said: "Last week there were two final bidders in discussions regarding acquisition of Wrights Group. A rental agreement for the sites was reached with one bidder, who then pulled out of the deal on Friday, September 20.

"A second bidder discussed purchasing the sites, but no formal letter of offer was made from that bidder. Any reports to the contrary are completely inaccurate."

The family said it's standing by payments through charitable donations to Green Pastures Church, saying that the company board, its lender Bank of Ireland and economic development agency, Invest NI, all approved the donations.

Some staff have said they will picket the church on Sunday over the payments and what they regard as imprudent use of company funds.

The family said last night: "The Wright family invested in excess of £20m in 2018 and 2019 in attempts to protect both jobs and the engineering infrastructure at Wrightbus in Ballymena. Work was moved from Malaysia to Ballymena to protect employment.

"Just this week, this included paying the wages of all shop floor employees for the last fortnight, at a cost of nearly £600,000.

"The family have always placed giving to and supporting Christian work at the centre of what we do and that has included contributions to various church organisations, all of which have been entirely legal and were approved by directors, the bank and Invest NI."

Weichai and Jo Bamford have not responded to requests for comment.

Belfast Telegraph