A LONG-established and successful executive travel company, frustrated at the lack of Stormont support, has been forced to sell off some of its coaches and partly diversify into haulage work after Covid left it with just £97 in the bank.
Newry-based East Coast Coaches was launched in 1988 by Paddy Connolly, initially as a taxi operator, but moved into coach travel soon after, with its primary market being concerts, wedding work, private tours and school runs.
But with most of its 25-strong fleet of coaches parked up since last March, the founder's son Sean Connolly revealed that the business has sold off his two most expensive coaches and used the income to acquire four lorries and a recovery vehicle.
It comes as newly-published accounts for East Coast Transport Ltd reveal that when the company's books closed on June 30 last, shareholder funds were a paltry £97.
"While the government is constantly promising support, it simply isn't providing it quickly enough," Sean Connolly told the Irish News.
"We haven’t received a single penny yet, bar furlough payments for our staff.
"I was simply exasperated, and I just couldn't look at those empty coaches any longer.
"I have to put food on the table, so until the tourism industry gets back on its feet, I had no choice but to look at diversifying."
Sean has already taken his lorry test and has retained some of his coach drivers in the hope that they can get behind the wheel or a lorry and the fledgling haulage division may now benefit from increased Brexit trade.
But he accepts it's a definite gamble.
"We've had some enquiries but no definite business as yet, and at this stage we're not pinning ourselves down to local or all-Ireland business, or groupage, or any specific aspect of haulage.
"We'll have a look at whatever comes our way and will only do what we are able to do with our modest fleet."
For years the green-liveried East Coast Coaches were a regular feature on motorways and cities across Ireland, taking concert-goers to the likes of the 3Arena, Croke Park, Aviva Stadium, or for corporate business travel, golf tours, school trips, hen and stag outings or other private hire.
"We have the experience, professionalism, expertise and efficiency of a well-organised business, and before Covid we were heading for a record year," said Sean.
"Yet despite the best efforts of lobby organisations like Bus and Coach NI, the company has had zero financial support.
"We seem to have fallen through all the cracks," he said.
"We were ruled out of the Micro-business Hardship Fund because we have 11 full-time employees and the £10,000 grant was only going to businesses with up to nine employees.
"We haven't received the coach package yet, but we were turned down for the taxi package because our drivers are full-time and not part-time. We haven't got a penny in support, just loans.
"While our coaches are lying idle, and some hadn't had a fill of diesel since March 11 last year, they still need maintained and they still need starting in the yard , and we're out a fortune in batteries."
Meanwhile a £20 million support scheme for company directors in the north will open for applications later this week.
Economy minister Diane Dodds says she acknowledges that directors of limited companies have been among the groups excluded from any kind of financial support from Stormont or London.
The Limited Company Directors Support Scheme (LCDSS) will initially offer a grant of £1,000, though this could be topped up to £3,500.
“Many company directors who have been adversely affected by covid have found themselves in financial difficulty, and I'm pleased we are able to help address the gap in national support for this group by introducing a local support scheme,” she said.