Wrightbus, the Ballymena bus-builder, faces liquidation as early as Friday after Jeff Wright, the pastor and majority shareholder of the property company that owns the Wrightbus factory, rejected a potential rescue deal over money.
Businessman Jo Bamford, who is in exclusive negotiations with administrators of the group, said in a statement that he had made an offer that matched the asking price for the the factory and the surrounding land.
"At 10am this morning, I made an offer to the Wright family to match the asking price for the Wrightbus factory and land," Mr Bamford said. "This includes a sum to match the amount that the factory and associated land was purchased for two years ago from JTI.
“Mr Wright has since refused this offer and has now asked for a significantly higher sum of money.”
Trades union sources said on Thursday night that the possibility of a deal “was hanging by a thread” as Mr Bamford had not yet definitively walked away.
Mr Wright, the son of the Wrights Group founder, had earlier highlighted problems in relation to farmlands owned by his family.
“We want to save this business and put it on a sustainable footing,” Mr Bamford said, “but, regrettably, if this offer is not agreed today, we understand that the business will go into liquidation tomorrow.”
In response to this, Mr Wright said in a statement on Thursday afternoon that he did not “recognise” Mr Bamford’s explanation of why the deal fell through. He said Mr Bamford was advised on October 4th that any deal would not include the family farmlands.
“ It is important to note that no other bidder sought at any time to link the farmlands to the business purchase,” Mr Wright said.
“Mr Bamford, as his statement confirms, did not deal with these matters until 10am this morning, Thursday, 10th October. In his response he insisted he would not proceed with the deal unless the farmlands were included.”
Unite’s regional officer for Wrightbus, George Brash, said earlier that Mr Bamford had not yet walked away from the possibility of a deal and was still considering the options. But, Mr Brash said, “It is all hanging by a thread, we just have to wait and see what happens now.”
In his first statement on Thursday, Mr Wright said “exhaustive efforts” had gone into reaching agreement with Mr Bamford.
"The failure by Mr Bamford's Ryse Hydrogen company to complete the deal to purchase Wrightbus is deeply regrettable especially after the exhaustive efforts all of us involved have gone to in providing every possible support," Mr Wright said in a statement.
Despite the development, the North's secretary of state, Julian Smith, held out some hope for a deal. In a tweet, Mr Smith said the administrators of the business needed "space to get a deal over the line".
Wrights Group, which had been privately owned and controlled by the Wright family, went into administration 16 days ago with the immediate loss of 1,200 jobs.
Administrators from Deloitte have been seeking a buyer for the group and unions had confirmed that Mr Bamford had entered into "exclusive" discussions with them.
The DUP MP for the area, Ian Paisley, has repeatedly warned over the last 24 hours that if a deal could not be agreed by Thursday "it would be the end of bus building in Ballymena".
He had described Mr Bamford’s bid for the group as a “good offer”.
But Mr Wright in his statement criticised Mr Paisley for what he said was his “unhelpful” role.
“In what could be considered a vote campaigning exercise, Mr Paisley continually championed Mr Bamford throughout this process, particularly briefing the media and the unions about the farmland and tying it into the business arrangements. Mr Paisley would be well advised to leave the business of deal making to the professionals at Deloittes,” Mr Wright said.
“For the record, the entire premises at Galgorm including the factory, fixtures and fittings as well as the land was agreed to be made available to all bidders, either to lease or purchase.
“While each and every one of the bidders agreed terms Mr Bamford sought to gain unrelated additional farmlands owned by my family.
“These farmlands, which have restricted use, were bought through a mortgage and were not at any time a part of the Wrightbus business.”
Mr Wright, a church pastor, controls the property investment company Whirlwind Property Two Limited, which owns the site of the Wrightbus factory. Mr Bamford is the son of billionaire JCB chairman, Anthony Bamford.
Mr Wright meanwhile said it was “not clear” what ambitions Mr Bamford or his associates might have had for his family’s farmland. He said it would be “a mistake to conflate his farmland interests with his failure to complete on the Wrightbus deal and its associated lands”.
“I hope that Deloittes have not been side-tracked by the Bamford engagement and can now put their energies into delivering a deal by working with the remaining bidders to secure the future of Wrightbus and the jobs in Ballymena.”