Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus staff sought by Scots coachbuilder Alexander Dennis as D-Day for sale of company looms

Jeff Wright owns the land Wrightbus premises occupy
Jeff Wright owns the land Wrightbus premises occupy
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Wrightbus staff who lost their jobs are being approached by Scottish bus builder Alexander Dennis.

The details emerged during a behind-closed-doors council meeting, where administrators said the company may have just days left to agree a rescue deal.

Alexander Dennis, based in Larbert, yesterday told this newspaper it would "love to hear" from workers who want to stay in bus manufacturing.

Michael Magney of administrators Deloitte revealed that workers were being approached while briefing members of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on Tuesday night.

He was outlining failed attempts to sell the stricken Ballymena bus-maker, which led to it entering administration last week.

Four parties are considering a purchase of the firm. But Mr Magney told councillors that the timeline for a successful sale of the business was tight.  

"My best guess is if we haven't got a deal agreed in the next seven to 10 days, maximum two weeks, then I don't think there will be a business to sell."

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Although the council meeting was held in private, a recording of discussions was accidentally made available. A council spokesman said: "Due to a technical error, a section of a private session of council was inadvertently published online. This was available for a very short period of time and removed as soon as we became aware of the issue."

During the closed session, Mr Magney said the company owed around £25m to suppliers.

He said a successful deal at this point would be down to an agreement between the bidder and the landlord of Wrightbus's main premises, Jeff Wright, the chief shareholder in the business and the son of founder Sir William Wright. It is believed Jeff Wright had been seeking £1m per year for rent from Chinese company Weichai, which planned to lease the premises as part of an acquisition deal, though Weichai then walked away.  

Another possible buyer, Jo Bamford, was to buy the property as part of a deal, but also walked away. He is now one of the four parties considering a purchase.

Mr Magney told councillors: "In terms of the property, it is still a sticking point. If it is a bidder looking to lease it, I would probably be more confident on that but if it is a bidder looking to buy the site then I think that is probably more difficult. It is really a debate between the bidder and the landlord."

He said that rent on the site - the former premises of cigarette company JTI Gallaher's - had been paid to another company of Mr Wright's by Wrights Group, and that that rent was at the "upper end" of the market rate. 

Mr Magney also told councillors that the company had lost tens of thousands of pounds on a deal to supply buses to a Hong Kong company after transferring work from Malaysia to Ballymena in an effort to shore up the firm.  

He said one company director - believed to be Lorraine Rock, the daughter of founder Sir William Wright - had advanced £570,000 to pay the wages of some staff after it ran out of money last week.

He said there were talks about securing a buyer but added: "Even if we are successful in selling substantially all of the business, I can't say with any confidence that we think we will find jobs for 1,200 guys again.

"Anybody coming to buy the business is highly likely to seek to re-employ a lower level. The most employable guys which anyone buying the business will want to keep, we know Alexander Dennis are already on the phone to these guys saying: 'Why wait? Come and work for us.'

"They are talking about coming across here, running a surgery for the guys trying to recruit them. We know that it is definitely a risk that we will lose people."

Community rallies around ex-worker

Former Wrightbus worker Jim McMaster (46) said he is feeling more positive following a huge outpouring of support. The Craigavon man, who had worked for the company for 27 years, was left feeling he “failed” his daughter Rachel as losing his job meant he could not afford to fund her dream of becoming a world-class gymnast. But people have offered their assistance in securing a new job and keeping Rachel’s dream alive.

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