Belfast Telegraph

Jim Flanagan: Wrightbus collapse another body blow that Ballymena will find hard to absorb

Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday
Hundreds of Wrightbus workers leave the factory in Ballymena yesterday

By Jim Flanagan

Although rumours of problems at Wrightbus had been circulating for months, the company's administration yesterday still came as a body blow to the 1,200 local employees losing their jobs.

A significant and continuous drop in demand for buses across the UK, the company's biggest market, seriously depleted its order book and exacerbated its cash flow problems. Despite strenuous efforts to find a new buyer in recent weeks, the writing was on the wall yesterday when staff and unions were called into a meeting to be given the dreaded news that all attempts, so far, to find a purchaser for the business had failed.

First and foremost it is a bitter blow for the individuals losing their jobs, many of whom had given a lifetime of service to Wrightbus.

With Christmas around the corner many families will now be facing up to the prospect of trying to find new employment to pay the bills in a very competitive jobs market.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council's business development officers will be deploying their resources to provide whatever help and advice they can give in the short term, but such is the scale of the losses, the impact is bound to be severe.

More generally, the collapse of one of Northern Ireland's most successful international export businesses is yet another economic disaster for Ballymena, still reeling from more than 2,000 job losses from the closures of the JTI tobacco factory and Michelin tyre company in recent years.

Given the company's stellar business record up to relatively recently, with orders for its iconic buses from all over the world, the demise of Wrightbus will be viewed by many as even more profound than the closures of the JTI and Michelin. For decades it was synonymous with the Galgorm landscape, providing livelihoods for thousands of families down the years and making contributions to many local worthwhile causes and playing a full role in civic society.

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The problem was that even in the 'good' times - when, for example, the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, placed an order for over 1,000 iconic Routemaster buses - a company the size of Wrightbus needed a continuous supply of contracts to keep the order book topped up.

Feeding the production lines was a never ending challenge and executives scoured the world for new orders to, quite literally, 'keep the wheels turning'.

The company invested heavily in research and technology to try and stay ahead of the game in an increasingly competitive international market place. It was at the leading edge of 'green' bus technology and its founder, William Wright, was regarded as way ahead of his time in foreseeing the importance of developing environmentally friendly technologies.

Jim Flanagan
Jim Flanagan

And perhaps it is in this area of growth worldwide that the company's administrators may find a glimmer of hope in salvaging something from the wreckage of the business. The trade unions were quickly out of the blocks yesterday to demand government intervention to stabilise the business and local MP, Ian Paisley, will be using his influence to encourage Mr Johnston to intervene.

Only time will tell whether their efforts will produce results.

Ballymena has had to learn to be resilient when it comes to dealing with significant job losses.

JTI, Michelin, and now Wrightbus, all employing over 1,000 people and now seemingly all gone in a few short years. The question is - just how much more can one small town be expected to take?

Jim Flanagan is the former editor of the Ballymena Guardian

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