Northern Ireland news

Analysis: Wrightbus family eat cake, staff pocket P45s

Dejected workers leave the Wrightbus plant in Ballymena after being told they were being made redundant
Gary McDonald, Business Editor

FAMILY values are valued and indeed espoused at Wrightbus.

Just this week, in fact, the failed firm's directors and shareholders - the son (Jeff) and daughters (Amanda and Lorraine) of its founder Sir William Wright - joined in birthday festivities for a Knight of the Realm and energetic nonagenarian.

But there's been few celebrations among the failed manufacturer's hammer-struck workers.

For them it isn't cake, presents and bonhomie, but immediate redundancy, a P45 and an imminent dole office appointment.

Apart from a skeleton staff of around 50, the remainder of the 1,300 workforce are waking up this morning without a job, facing the grim prospect of weeks, maybe months, until they get their statutory severance entitlement.

And already the recriminations have begun. How exactly can a company at the cutting edge of technological advancements in the design and supply of green public transport, with a second-to-none skills base, which have given decades of loyalty, have had such a spectacular and catastrophic fall from grace?

Well, recent economic conditions certainly can't have helped, with global changes from diesel to electric in bus technology leading to a sharp decline in demand for buses in the UK.

Also, its management hierarchy has changed over the last two years, notably culminating with the departure earlier this year of chairman and chief executive Mark Nodder.

He joined the company more than 20 years ago and rose through its ranks to take full responsibility for all group sales internationally, as well as the strategic direction of the business.

Nodder was its public face and was credited with opening the group up to new markets, including America and the Far East, as well as growing the UK division. Did he see the writing was on the wall when he stood down in March and wasn't replaced? Who knows.

And then, of course, there is the apparent 'gifting' of huge chunks of company profits to the Green Pastures Church, which had been building large new premises in Ballymena (a scheme valued at £100m) until work was suspended earlier this year.

The church's lead pastor and founder Jeff Wright is no longer listed as a director of the Wrights Group companies, unlike his sisters and father, but he is a 68 per cent shareholder and remains a director of 14 companies (including a major property company).

Yet despite the financial crisis which has been engulfing the company, Wrights still donated £16m to the church between 2012 and 2017, including more than £4m in 2017 - the same year it posted a loss of £1.17m on a turnover of £227 million.

Whatever the reasons for Wrightbus joining JTI Gallaher's and Michelin in the Ballymena manufacturing wilderness, the human impact will be devastating, and it requires intervention at prime ministerial level to save jobs and skills.

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