There are four potential buyers currently in talks with the administrators of the failed Ballymena bus builder, the Wrights Group, union leaders have confirmed.
Former workers at the Wrights Group factories, which went into administration last week with the loss of 1,200 jobs, were told at a rally in Ballymena on Wednesday that the discussions are a “positive sign” .
It is understood the current interested parties in the group include two EU-based firms, an organisation headquartered in China and a UK-registered company.
Nearly 300 people took part in the rally at the Ballymena showgrounds which was organised by the Unite trade union.
George Brash, Unite's regional officer said although it believes there are still some "land issues", the union is "optimistic" that there is the basis for a possible deal which would "save jobs" at the bus manufacturer, Wrightbus.
“This is a viable company, this is a company with advanced renewables technology and a highly skilled workforce.
“If there is any barrier that is holding back a deal – and the only one that we can see is about the land that the factory is on – then that must be sorted out,” Mr Brash said.
Wrightbus was part of the Wrights Group whose parent company was the Cornerstone Group.
Last Wednesday Michael Magnay and Peter Allen of Deloitte were appointed as joint administrators to Wrights Group Limited, Wrightbus Limited, Wright En-Drive Limited, Wright Composites Limited and Metallix Limited, (together "the Companies").
The Cornerstone Group, which is not part of the administration process, is a privately owned organisation which is controlled by members of the Wright family, including Jeffrey (Jeff) Wright who is listed as the majority shareholder.
According to annual accounts for the Cornerstone Group from 2010 to 2017 it made charitable donations amounting to £15.38 million (€17.27 million) to fund the group’s “commitment to Christian, evangelical and other charitable activities”.
As well as being the majority shareholder in the Cornerstone Group Jeff Wright is also a director and pastor of Green Pastures, the People’s Church in Ballymena which is a charity limited by guarantee without share capital.
It has emerged that the Wrights Group did not own its bus manufacturing facility in Ballymena.
It is owned by an investment property company, Whirlwind Property Two Limited, which is a company that is controlled by Jeff Wright.
Mr Brash has called on Mr Wright to “hand back the land” that the Wrightbus facility is located on “to the people of Ballymena”.
Politicians in Northern Ireland who have met with the administrators to the Wrights Group are concerned that there may be a “number of obstacles that need to be overcome” to secure a rescue deal for the Wrights Group.
One of these, the Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry, has said these obstacles include “addressing the level of debts to creditors, overall customer confidence in the operation and issues regarding the property”.
Dr Farry also believes that the window to find a buyer for Wrightbus as “a single package . . . is narrow and realistically only a matter of weeks”.
Because of the current level of debate in the North around the Wrights Group and its collapse the chief executive of the North’s regional business development agency issued a letter on Wednesday to all political parties in Northern Ireland and “stakeholders in the area” setting out details of its past investments in the Wrights Group and recent support for the company.
Alastair Hamilton outlined that when Invest NI became aware of “significant cashflow issues” in the Wrights Group companies it became “heavily involved with the company directors, strategic advisers and the company’s bank to try to find a resolution that would enable the companies to continue to trade”.
As a result of this it “provided a loan of £2.5 million to the Wrights Group, approved in June 2019 to allow time for the advisers and directors to conclude negotiations with prospective bidders”.
According to Invest NI this “loan assistance” was approved by the North’s Department for the Economy and the Department of Finance.
Mr Hamilton detailed that since 2012 companies within the Wrights Group had “drawn down £4.2 million against six key offers of support from Invest NI”.
Separately, Invest NI had also confirmed to The Irish Times that the Wrights Group had received a total of £9.05 million (€10.16 million) of government money since 2002.
Mr Hamilton said that all of these offers included a “restriction on dividends and a requirement to maintain a minimum net asset level to ensure that sufficient funds were available in Wrights Group to deliver the balance of funding for the projects that we supported”.
“Any associated dividends taken from the Wrights Group compiled with the requirements of the current letters of offer.
“The minimum net asset condition was met up until the recent financial difficulties when the Wrights Group’s financial position significantly decline,” he stated.
Mr Hamilton also said that in relation to charitable donations made by the Cornerstone Group “any dividends paid from Wrights Group were within the permissible levels set out in those agreements”.
“Once the dividends were paid to Cornerstone, it was a matter for the directors of Cornerstone as to how they are put to use. Invest NI neither currently nor in the past, has had any support agreements with Cornerstone,” he added.