One of Northern Ireland’s biggest employers faces a crunch week as Wrightbus, which employs 1,400 staff, attempts to stave off collapse by securing a last-minute rescue deal.
Mounting financial problems at the Ballymena-based company have left it looking for a buyer, with the Chinese engineering group Weichai and a firm led by the JCB heir, Jo Bamford, understood to be the suitors in talks. However, local MP Ian Paisley told the BBC on Friday he understood talks with the two potential buyers had failed to reach a conclusion.
In a separate interview with the Guardian last week, Paisley said: “The cash pressure on the company is massive. They can’t even think of redundancies in the present situation because of the cash situation. They really do need this injection of cash or a new owner”.
Wrights Group on Sunday declined to confirm or deny that the talks with the two parties had collapsed, or discuss if administration is now the most likely option. The spokeswoman said: “The board of Wrights Group is working hard to ensure the long-term future of the company and its workforce.”
Last week, Northern Irish businessman Darren Donnelly pulled out of making a potential bid. Meanwhile, just a day before the problems with the two potential bidders emerged, the company raised staff hopes that a deal was imminent.
On Thursday, Wright Bus management told their employees it was “now in a race to complete a final deal with credible bidders”.
It added: “This ongoing business and its employees are our number one priority and we are confident that a positive outcome can be delivered over the next few days”.
While Deloitte is running the sales auction, it is uncertain whether it or another party is being lined up as administrator.
Wright Bus, which also manufactured the New Routemaster buses launched by then mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2012, has been struggling with its finances for months and made two rounds of redundancies last year with 95 jobs going in February and June.
However, it has also had some success in selling its products and received an order for 20 brand new hydrogen-powered buses, which cost around £500,000 each and only emit water as exhaust, from Transport for London (TfL) in May.
As well as cutting polluting exhaust emissions, the buses will run on green hydrogen produced via North Kent offshore windfarms, according to TfL.
The New Routemasters were criticised for being expensive and attracted embarrassing publicity, such as the failing batteries on a large number of vehicles. Further purchases were cancelled by Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as mayor, in 2016.