Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Revealed: Crisis-hit Wrightbus gave £15m in Christian charity donations


Co-founder Sir William Wright and Mark Nodder, who recently left the firm
Co-founder Sir William Wright and Mark Nodder, who recently left the firm

By Christopher Woodhouse

Crisis-hit Wrightbus has given away more than £15m in Christian charity donations over the last six years, Sunday Life can reveal.

The Ballymena firm has been teetering on the brink of collapse for months after more than 70 years in the coach-building business.

Despite decades of profits, Wrightbus, the last major employer left in the Co Antrim town, is still desperately seeking a buyer.

But over the years, millions of pounds has been taken out of parent company, The Cornerstone Group, to "fund the group's commitment to Christian, evangelical and other charitable activities".

Its most recent accounts show it donated £4.15m to Christian and charitable causes; in the same year it posted a loss of £1.17m.

The Cornerstone Group owns all the various Wrightbus companies in Northern Ireland, and its coach-building operations in Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as its fibreglass plant in India.

According to accounts filed with Companies House, the firm donated the following amounts:

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2012 - £1.02m

2013 - £742,000

2014 - £4.45m

2015 - £5.02m

2016 - £700,000

2017 - £4.15m

Full accounts for 2018 have yet to be filed but are due early next month.

The last year for which full accounts are available is 2017 and they show £400,000 paid out as dividends to shareholders with an overall loss to the firm of £1.17m.

In the strategic report, the directors say Wrightbus continues to be "industry leaders in clean technology for buses" which it says puts it in a good position given the demand for zero-emission vehicles. It adds the company has been successful in selling double deckers in Mexico and hopes for further orders there and in Latin America.

Last week, one hopeful new owner, Darren Donnelly, dramatically pulled out of crunch talks to save the firm, which has around 1,400 workers.

Another lifeline emerged in the form of Jo Bamford, son of JCB founder Lord Bamford.

In April, long-serving chief executive Mark Nodder stepped down after 21 years with Wrightbus, with Jeff Wright taking up a temporary position before a replacement is found.

The Cornerstone Group's official address was recently changed to the home address of Jeff Wright, outside Portglenone.

He is the son of Wrightbus co-founder, Sir William Wright, and once enjoyed success as an Irish League footballer with Ballymena United. Later he joined the family business, serving as a director for 15 years, from 1999 to 2014.

Jeff Wright, who styles himself as a pastor, also founded the Green Pastures Church, located in a large building not far from the factory. It is registered as a charity and is therefore able to reclaim tax on income via GiftAid.

Accounts filed with Companies House show that at the end of April last year Green Pastures had total funds of £18.35m, with an income of £4.3m in the year 2017/18.

Describing its financial state, the directors say it "is testament to the lovely giving heart of its people and to God's promise and that we if we act in faith and with careful planning He will release His provision".

The first of its five "objectives and activities" is "to advance the Christian religion for the benefit of the public in the area" by the "adoption of a moral framework which encourages them to be good citizens".

Green Pastures has also pledged to build a megachurch on a 97-acre site with a business park, training centre and student housing near Ballymena.

This is referred to as "Project Nehemiah" in Companies House documents with £4.65m sitting in its dedicated account in 2018.

Green Pastures broadcasts its weekly sermons online, frequently headed by Jeff Wright with a rotating cast of guest preachers.

He has previously spoken about how he prayed to God after believing he was incapable of doing his job at the family firm.

Firebrand evangelical pastor James McConnell is a friend of Jeff Wright and has preached sermons at the church.

McConville made headlines in 2015 when he was prosecuted after describing Muslims as "heathen" and Islam as a "doctrine spawned in hell" in a sermon broadcast online.

The 78-year-old was found not guilty on two charges under the Communications Act.

Belfast Telegraph

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