Former Wrightbus workers ‘angry’ at donations to evangelical church

Cornerstone gave over £16m to local church in the years before mass redundancies

Jeff Wright at the Green Pastures Church in Ballymena, Co Antrim, which was was heavily funded by the Wright family. Photograph:  Stephen Davison

Jeff Wright at the Green Pastures Church in Ballymena, Co Antrim, which was was heavily funded by the Wright family. Photograph: Stephen Davison

 

Two unfinished buses stand in the Wrightbus factory in Ballymena, Co Antrim. In front of them, the once-bustling car park for 1,250 workers stands empty.

Just 50 of the workers are left. The rest were made redundant on Wednesday, after the company entered administration. The union fears that more than 3,000 workers elsewhere in Northern Ireland are at risk.

Nearby, the evangelical church Green Pastures, that was heavily funded by the Wright family, is busy and people enjoy coffees and children sit playing video games.

It was to this church that the Cornerstone Group Limited – which controls Wrights Group – made charitable donations of more than £16 million between 2010 and 2017.

In 2017 alone, Cornerstone gave £4.15 million (€4.7 million) to fund “Christian, evangelical and other charitable activities”. In the same year, it made a pretax loss of £1.7 million.

Its founder, director and senior pastor is Jeffrey William Wright, known as “Pastor Jeff”, who is the son of the founder of Wrightbus, William Wright. Pastor Jeff is also the majority shareholder in Cornerstone.

Green Pastures has plans for a “model village”, complete with social housing, shops and a huge auditorium, all in part of what is known as “Northern Ireland’s Bible Belt”.

Cornerstone had “made God a shareholder in the business”, Pastor Jeff said in an interview with The Irish Times in November 2017. Yesterday, he was not available for comment.

‘I’m angry’

Saying it was “heartbroken” by the job losses, the church in a statement said it understood the “hurt, anger and confusion” felt by so many, saying it was “incredibly grateful” for the support given over years by the Wright family.

Former employees, however, will protest outside the church on Sunday, saying that they are “angry” that so much money was donated to the church rather than invested in Wrightbus.

The relationship between Wrightbus and the church are deep. Some workers say prayer meetings were held in the factory, while they were asked to donate money to the church through their wages.

“It was a good company, but the management was wrong,” said a former worker. “We were told for six years we couldn’t have a pay rise, but yet money was being siphoned off to the church, and bonuses paid to directors.”

A former Wrightbus employee puts up a T-shirt with the words ‘Shame on you Jeff Wright’ outside the factory in Co Antrim. Photograph: Paul McErlane
A former Wrightbus employee puts up a T-shirt with the words ‘Shame on you Jeff Wright’ outside the factory in Co Antrim. Photograph: Paul McErlane

In 2017 – when Cornerstone made a loss – directors received £1.6 million (€1.8 million) in emoluments while the company’s pretax loss amounted to £1.7 million (€1.9 million).

“I’m angry,” said former Wrightbus employee Glenn Kennedy, but stresses that Sunday’s protest is peaceful: “We have to show the families that have been ruined by this.”

“If you were making stupid profit that’s one thing,” another worker, Colin Urwin told The Irish Times, “but margins here were so tight. This should never have happened.”

“It’s totally disgusting,” adds David Robinson. “If you run a business, it’s about making a profit. The company was making a loss. It wasn’t his [Pastor Jeff’s] money to give away.”

‘Boris bus’

Like many others, Robinson joined Wrightbus straight after school: “My mother and father have three sons, and a son-in-law, who have all now been laid off, with no warning, after at least 17 years of service.

Wrightbus collapsed because it “ran out of cash”, said Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing NI. The charitable donations contributed, but so did the post-Brexit devaluation of sterling.

Meanwhile, a downturn in the bus market and the company’s inability to shed workers because it could not afford redundancies “ate away at their cash flow until they ran out of money”, he said.

Saying they were “devastated” that the company has been placed into administration, the Wright family said they had covered “significant losses” for more than a year, but it was impossible to continue doing so.

“I’m sorry, boys, that it’s come to this,” the company’s 92-year-old founder, William Wright, told employees. Changes in bus technology from diesel to electric had led to slowing orders from within the UK.

Wright Snr established the company in 1946. Recently, it was best known as the maker of the so-called “Boris Bus”, the Routemaster bus ordered by the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, when he was mayor of London.

Leaving a redundancy advice clinic in Ballymena yesterday, former workers had little hope of a new job: “Sure you’re competing with a thousand other similarly-skilled people,” said one.

“It’s a pity for Ballymena,” said Jim Flanagan, the former editor of the Ballymena Guardian. “We’ve lost Michelin, JTI Gallaher, and now Wrightbus, all employing more than 1,000 people, gone in eight years.

“We used to talk about there being four ‘star’enterprises in Ballymena. Now Moy Park [which employs 1,700 in the North Antrim town] is the only one left,” he said.