The BBC Spotlight programme has uncovered evidence that the collapse of the Ballymena firm Wrightbus, could have been a result of poor corporate governance, conflict of interests and donations of £1.3m made to Green Pastures church, despite the firms parent company being in financial trouble.
The programme broadcast yesterday evening on BBC One, carried out a financial investigation, including consulting several experts to look in depth at the companies account and its various transaction.
The programme revealed that back in January 2019, Wrightbus parent company, Cornerstone, had made a donation to Green Pastures Church which totalled £1.3m. Pastor of Green Pastures, Jeff Wright is also the controlling shareholder of Cornerstone, with according to an expert approached by Spotlight:
“raises a conflict of interest which would be very, very severe”
Up to this point the donations given to the church had been while the firm was in profit and on a good financial footing, with following payments made:
- 2012, £1.02m
- 2013, £742,000
- 2014 , £4.45m
- 2015, £5.02m
- 2016, £700,000
- 2017, £4.15m
That was until 2018 when the Wrights Group accounts for that year showed the firm had a pre tax loss of £13.6m, BUT continued with this £1.3m donation.
The programme also revealed that a site formally used by Wrightbus Ltd at Galgorm Industrial estate, was sold for over £800,000 to a charity called The Salight Foundation in 2007.
This charity in turn sold it back several years later in 2012, now at this point referred to as The Green Pastures Centre, to Wrightbus for £2.6m, a markup of over 200%.
That company directors of Salight were, Sir William Wright, Jeff Wright and Amanda Knowles. It’s understood the profits from this sale back to WrightBus was used towards the purchase of a site at Ballee in Ballymena, a 97 acre plot, where a new church and surrounding facilities are to be build.
This would go on to be called the Gateway Project, with work continuing on the ambitious project, despite plans being scaled back slightly in recent years.
After selling the building back to Wrightbus, Green Pastures continued to rent their building situated beside the WrightBus compound.
At the time Jeff Wright is quoted as saying:
“We were able to put a deposit down because we were able to sell the (original) church, and now we rent it. Wrights will take this place over; they need the space. That’s the reason how we were able to get the land.”
It was also uncovered that Jeff’s Sister, Dr Lorraine Rock, was offered a buyback for her shares in the company Cornerstone, of £1m. Despite this she remained as a Director of Wrightbus. A expert for the programme said this would value the business at £80m despite the fact the business was actually in a financial crisis by this point and was already potentially insolvent.
The spotlight programme were told by a forensic account that:
“I’m struggling to find a commercial reality to that transaction”
Invest NI had give the company £3.9m in 2013 which allowed the company invest in R&D for low carbon vehicles.
Despite this money, Wrightbus reached out to Invest Ni again in the middle part of 2019, asking for £2.5m in rescue money.
This rescue was approved by Invest Ni despite their knowledge that a donation and a buyback of shares had previously saw £2.3m taken from the company reserves, a total close to that being now being asked. On the programme this was called ‘a curious equivalence’.
Invest NI have defended their decision to support WrightBus with this amount saying:
“Invest NI has been completely open about the decision to provide an urgent £2.5m secured loan as part of a wider funding package to the Wrights Group.
“The decision to provide the loan was taken jointly by Invest NI and the permanent secretaries of the Department for the Economy and the Department of Finance to help safeguard the business.
“Had this loan (of which £1.5m has already been repaid) not been advanced, it is very unlikely the company would be operating today under new management, with employment of 400 and plans for further growth.”
Several months later the firm went into administration with £58m of debt, £38m to the Bank of Ireland & £20m to its creditors.
A last minute bid by Jo Bamford rescued the firm which has now reopened and back in operation, with an order from bus company Rotala The deal will see Wrighbus provide 163 new vehicles this year worth close to £30m.