Northern Ireland news

Potential investor 'keen' to rescue Wrightbus - but rent remains a big issue

Sources claim a buyer could yet be found to rescue Wrightbus and re-employ many of the workers made redundant earlier this week
Gary McDonald Business Editor

AT least one potential investor has expressed a "keen interest" in acquiring Wrightbus, sources have told The Irish News.

And it is understood they could potentially re-employ up to half of the 1,200 workers who lost their jobs when the firm crashed into administration on Wednesday.

But issues around a reported £1 million-a-year rent for the factory remain a key stumbling block and could yet scupper any deal to have the gates reopened.

Northern Ireland businessman Darren Donnelly, the son of the chairman of UK machinery giant JCB, and a Chinese conglomerate had all been linked with a takeover of troubled manufacturer before the shutters came down this week.

And yesterday a source said that a fresh deal, thought to be from one of that trio, was "under consideration", although administrators Deloitte won't give any update until early next week.

The Wrightbus factory is owned separately from the failed manufacturing company by a firm called Whirlwind Property Two.

It is controlled by Jeff Wright (56), son of the business's founder Sir William Wright and who is pastor of the Green Pastures Church, which benefitted from more than £15 million of donations from Wrightbus over the last six years.

In August Jeff's two sons, Adam (26) and Jack (20), were appointed as directors while his sister Lorraine Rock resigned.

At the end of 2018 Whirlwind Property Two had total assets of £4.7 million, according to its accounts.

Potential buyers were understood to have been asked for around £1m a year to lease the property.

But this was disputed in a statement from the family yesterday, along with claims that they "acted unreasonably" during attempts to sell the business.

However, a source told the Irish News: "This rent issue has been the elephant in the room during negotiations with investors.

"Any suitor wanting to save the business would immediately be hit with a hefty liability."

In a statement the Wright family said that one bidder had agreed to rent the factory but later withdrew the offer.

They said: "Last week there were two final bidders in discussions regarding acquisition of Wright Group.

"A rental agreement for the sites was reached with one bidder, who then pulled out of the deal on Friday September 20.

"A second bidder discussed purchasing the sites, but no formal letter of offer was made from that bidder. Any reports to the contrary are completely inaccurate."

A redundancy clinic was held yesterday at The Braid in Ballymena to allow axed Wrightbus workers to be informed of what next steps they can take to secure work.

And Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said it had already identified around 250 vacant jobs across the borough which may be suitable to some of the redundant staff.

Indeed Ballymena firm Nu-Track, which has been designing and manufacturing specialist school and welfare buses since 1991 - and in which Jeff Wright currently controls - is now advertising for a number of production operators making its vehicles.

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