Bus maker Wrightbus says it is “confident” about the future of its 1,400 employee business, amid reports that a local entrepreneur is attempting to rescue the company.
In recent days it was reported that the Ballymena company - which has a turnover of over £180m and produced the famed ‘Boris Bus’ for London - could collapse into administration as early as this week.
However one major businessmen has confirmed that he is attempting to buy the company up as a going concern.
The developments will have been unsettling for many in Ballymena, which has lost major manufacturers Michelin and Gallaghers in recent years; In April poultry firm, Moy Park, revealed it was to temporarily halt some production at its Ballymena factory until January with one trade union expressing concerns for 400 jobs.
However a spokeswoman for Wrightbus assured this paper that their company has a strong future in the town.
“Wrightbus is confident about the future of the company.” she told the News Letter. “It is in the process of reviewing final bids from investors with a view to progressing towards completing a deal.”
She was unable to discuss any further detail around the situation at this time for commercial reasons, she added.
NI businessman Darren Donnelly has confirmed he is trying to buy the company.
A spokesman for Mr Donnelly said discussions with Wrightbus were ongoing, the BBC reported on Saturday.
UUP leader and North Antrim MLA Robin Swann, who raised the Wrightbus situation with the Prime Minister in July, said the company is an integral part of the North Antrim and Northern Ireland economy and the driver behind many technological advances in public transport.
“It is critical that the company receives all the support that it requires to ensure that its future is secured as a major employer in the Ballymena area,” he told the News Letter. “It is unfortunate and disgraceful that we do not have a functioning devolved government at this point in time that could be supply that support at present. Ballymena has suffered significant blows with the loses of both Michelin and Gallaghers to lose Wrightbus as well would be a body blow to the local economy that would be deep felt in many homes.”
In 2016, prospective Wrightbus buyer Mr Donnelly and his father sold their main business, SDC Trailers, for almost £100m.
In July Wrightbus confirmed that it was seeking an investor as it faces cashflow problems.
Management apologised to staff saying the news had been “leaked” to the media.
Latest accounts show Wrightbus made a pre-tax profit of £5m on a turnover of more than £181m in 2017.
However its financial situation has worsened since then, letting 95 workers go twice last year - which it said reflected low levels of demand for new buses in the UK.
Sky News’ City Editor reported on Friday that Mr Donnelly has emerged as “the leading contender to acquire Wrightbus”.
The newscaster said sources had claimed that without a rescue deal being concluded by this week, the company could be forced to appoint administrators.
The news comes just seven weeks after Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that the government would do “everything we can” to salvage Wrightbus’s future.
Asked by the DUP whether ministers would step in to save the company, the prime minister said: “It was of great value to the people of this country and I think it’s a great company and we will make sure, I give my assurance, we will do everything we can to ensure the future of that great UK company.”
It was unclear on Friday evening whether the government had any formal role in discussions about rescuing Wrightbus.
The Routemasters commissioned by Mr Johnson during his tenure as Mayor of London or ‘Boris Buses’, are made by Wrightbus.
Talks between Mr Donnelly and Wrightbus’s advisers are reported to have accelerated recently amid fading hopes of a takeover by Chinese company Weichai.
A source close to Weichai told Sky it remained possible that it could acquire Wrightbus but conceded that the possibility had begun to recede.
A number of other bidders are also reported to have walked away from the process amid a series of deadlines last week.
In July Wrightbus revaled that it had hired Deloitte, the professional services firm, to court “investors” after a financial downturn that left it facing heavy losses.
At the same, trade union Unite, which represents Wrightbus workers, said it had held “meaningful discussions” with the company and would be working with it to ensure the long-term viability of the company and to “future-proof” members’ jobs. The July meeting did not include any mention of redundancies, Unite said in July.
Sky reported that the company’s annualised losses are currently running to approximately £15m, and that the company may need a capital injection of at least £30m.
Wrightbus is not issuing any further comment at this time, its spokeswoman said.