Business

Four buyers still eye Wrightbus as Invest NI moves to claw back £2.5m hardship loan

Ex-employees of Wrightbus and their families gather at a rally in Ballymena Showgrounds. Photo: Hugh Russell
Gary McDonald Business Editor

REDUNDANT workers at troubled Wrightbus are planning another mass rally in Ballymena on Friday as administrators continue to seek a buyer for the plant.

Several hundred former staff of the company, many with their families, packed the main stand at the town's Showgrounds yesterday, where officials from the Unite union briefed them on latest developments.

It came as two potential bidders - one a "genuinely live prospect" from China, one from Britain and two others from the EU - revealed that they are interested in buying the bus-builder, which collapsed last week with the loss of 1,200 jobs.

And it also emerged yesterday that Invest NI had provided Wrightbus with a £2.5 million emergency loan just three months ago, despite the company having already been showing signs of distress.

The jobs quango said the loan in June was offered to provide financial breathing space as the business sought a buyer, but confirmed that it will now try to claw back that loan on behalf of the tax-payer.

In a statement it said it had become aware in recent months of the significant cash flow issues in the Wrights Group and became heavily involved with the company directors and its advisers to try to find a resolution which would save the companies.

"To that end we provided a loan of £2.5m to Wrights Group, approved in June 2019, to allow time for the advisers and directors to conclude negotiations with prospective bidders.

"Despite this additional time, which was sufficient to allow final bids to be delivered, the directors and their advisers were unable to reach a successful conclusion.

"As the business has now been placed in administration we will pursue claw back, as is our standard practice."

Since 2012, companies in the Wrights Group have drawn down £4.2m against six offers of support from Invest NI to support research & development, skills, job creation and export growth.

It came as details about the two potential suitors for Wrightbus emerged in a letter sent to councillors attending a special meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to discuss the company's collapse.

Administrators from Deloitte briefed councillors about the developments on Tuesday night.

It is hoped any deal could be concluded by the end of next week, though the ownership of the Wrightbus land, which is under the control of Jeff Wright separate from the main manufacturing business, remains a stumbling block.

MP for the area Ian Paisley said that he was "hopeful" a deal could be done to the satisfaction of all parties.

But even in the event of a successful sale, it's unlikely all the 1,200 workers would be hired again.

Mr Paisley suggested that when the firm shed around 100 jobs last year, those cuts "perhaps should have gone deeper", with possibly 300 people being laid off.

Unite's regional officer George Brash described yesterday's gathering to update ex-employees, and the emerging developments about possible buyers as "encouraging", and said a second rally is due to take place outside the main Wrightbus gates on Friday.

On the same day, former employees are being invited to a training and courses information event being held at Northern Regional College’s Farm Lodge campus in Ballymena from 10am-2pm.

Careers advisers from the college and the Department for the Economy will be on hand, along with lecturing staff and other agencies, to provide advice and guidance on qualifications, skills and courses.

The college said it is working as part of a multi-agency approach to deliver a programme of training and qualifications to support those affected by the recent closure.

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