Wrightbus to buy Gallahers tobacco plant in Ballymena
Bus manufacturer Wrights Group has struck a deal with an international tobacco company to buy the Ballymena factory it will vacate when the production line halts next year.
The agreement with Japan Tobacco International (JTI) will enable Wrightbus to expand it already sizeable operations in the Co Antrim town.
The decision to close the JTI Gallaher plant at Lisnafillan has dealt a hammer blow to the town's already faltering economy. A total of 870 jobs will be lost when production ends next year. Around 500 employees have already been made redundant.
Wrights, which has exchanged contracts to take over the 100-acre site when production ends, said it hoped the expansion would create more jobs in the medium to long term.
Details of the transaction, which is due to complete early next year, remain undisclosed.
Wrights Group chairman and chief executive Mark Nodder said: "Our current operations in Galgorm have become somewhat 'landlocked' in recent years, as substantial growth across the various parts of our business has progressively taken up all the land that we have owned.
"The imminent closure of the JTI facility has presented us with an opportunity to secure a substantial site, which will give us the additional space and operational flexibility we require to ensure that our future growth and development plans are not hampered by real estate constraints."
He added: "In recent years, a good deal of the company's growth has been in international markets which has required varying degrees of overseas investment. Yet Ballymena has always remained the heart and soul of our operations. The purchase of the Lisnafillan site further underlines our continuing and long term commitment to the town, its people and its local economy."
Wrights Group managing director Steven Francey said: "It is too early to outline specific plans for the Lisnafillan facility. However, securing the site for future use will allow us to look at a range of options, which could potentially include advanced engineering and R&D facilities that will help keep our products at the leading edge of what is a fast changing public transportation industry.
"We would naturally hope that in the medium to long term our investment will create additional employment opportunities within a number of our business areas."
JTI UK's engineering director Greg McKinley welcomed the purchase.
"Since the announcement of our factory closure, we have been exploring all opportunities to find a suitable buyer for our factory site. We are very pleased that Wrights Group has agreed to purchase the site and we look forward to working closely with them to complete the sale by mid-2017," he said.
Stormont Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said the transaction would provide a boost for Ballymena.
"This investment by the Wrights Group is positive news for Northern Ireland manufacturing and the local Ballymena community, which has experienced challenging times of late," he said.
"Growing and strengthening our indigenous manufacturing businesses is at the core of Invest Northern Ireland's strategy. By securing the Lisnafillan facility, The Wrights Group is cementing its commitment to Ballymena and demonstrating its drive for growth in international markets."