Wrightbus runs out of road as administrators called in
Wrightbus bosses are this morning expected to appoint administrators to the 73-year-old firm after it failed to cut a rescue deal with a buyer.
The company's 1,400 staff in Ballymena now face an uncertain future with job losses likely as the insolvency process begins.
Trade union Unite is expected to meet the company's chief operating officer Stephen Francey this morning.
Directors at the maker of the so-called 'Boris bus' had been in talks with companies including Chinese giant Weichai and entrepreneur Jo Bamford - whose family owns equipment giant JCB - about a sale.
But talks broke down last week, with the amount of rent to be paid on the company's premises believed to be a stumbling block.
Now the directors are expected to go to the High Court to appoint administrators, who will examine the company and its assets to see if any parts of it can be sold and a viable business restored.
However, creditors will lose out and their debts will not be paid.
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Wrightbus, which was co-founded by Sir William Wright, has faced trading difficulties after a downturn in demand for its products.
Wrightbus is thought to need a cash injection of around £30m to stay in business. The company last night said it had no update on the situation.
But Sky News reports suggested business advisers Deloitte were being lined up to be appointed as administrators after working for two months on preparing the company for sale.
It's understood a well-known Belfast law firm with expertise in insolvency had also been appointed to act in the matter.
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said: "If reports are true, then this would be a devastating blow to the staff at Wrightbus, the manufacturing sector across Northern Ireland and particularly damaging to the Ballymena economy.
"Businesses in the supporting supply chain have been doing what they can to support the company over this past year in the hope the business can be saved.
"They face some very uncertain months as they try to secure the money they are owed and replace the trade they have done with Wrightbus.
"That won't be easy as there's a significant cooling of demand across the UK economy as Brexit bites and buyers are reluctant to make big capital purchases.
"The company has a great product and a very talented workforce. Hopefully the administration process will see the firm put back on a firm footing."
As well as 1,400 staff potentially losing their jobs - which would make Wrightbus one of Northern Ireland's biggest corporate casualties of the last 10 years - dozens of suppliers in the Co Antrim area would be hit by the company's insolvency, causing a potentially massive ripple effect of further job losses.
Some firms are fully dependent on Wrightbus for their own survival.
It has bought a wide range of products and services from the area, from tools to industrial supplies and cleaning, the vast majority from independent businesses.
The potential loss of jobs will be a major setback for Ballymena, which has lost two other major employers, JTI Gallaher's and Michelin, in recent years.
Last Thursday the company issued a statement saying it was optimistic that a sale would be achieved which would involve staff keeping their jobs.
The company said it was "in a race to complete a final deal with credible bidders".
Wrightbus said: "This ongoing business and its employees are our number one priority and we are confident that a positive outcome can be delivered over the next few days."
However, by the next day there were reports that potential buyers - thought to be Weichai and Mr Bamford - had withdrawn.
A week earlier entrepreneur Darren Donnelly - who ran SDC Trailers in Toomebridge with his father John - had also emerged as a potential buyer before withdrawing from the race three days later. A spokeswoman had said: "While discussions had been ongoing over the past number of weeks, Mr Donnelly has confirmed that he has withdrawn from the process and is no longer pursuing the potential purchase of the Wrightbus company."
The appointment of administrators will end weeks of speculation about the future of the company.
One observer said: "I've heard the same for the past couple of months but I think they may have run out of road now."