Chinese companies are emerging as potential buyers for UK bus manufacturer Wrightbus, which is in financial trouble.
Weichai, a unit of state-owned Shandong Heavy Industry, is in discussions to buy Wrightbus. UK press reports say that another Chinese bus manufacturer, BYD, might also come in with a bid.
Wrightbus is one of Northern Ireland’s biggest exporters and has a workforce totalling 1,400 people. After making heavy losses, last month the company appointed Deloitte to look for a buyer.
Weichai has already had its people on the ground at Wright Group HQ in Ballymena. It is reported to have lodged a bid of around 50 million pounds (US$61.08 million). There has also been some interest from turnaround funds, but the firm would prefer a trade buyer.
The Northern Ireland economy is already under pressure as a result of uncertainty about whether Bombardier will continue its aircraft manufacturing operations there.
Wrightbus is located in Ballymena, which is a stronghold of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose votes the Conservative Party currently relies upon for its majority in the UK Parliament.
Against this backgroud, it is not surprising that last month Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to do "everything we can" to help save Wrightbus.
Weichai employs more than 80,000 people. It makes a range of engines, components and after-market parts for the automotive sector, in particular for heavy goods vehicles and buses.
In May, Wrightbus secured an order for 20 hydrogen-powered buses in a 12-million-pound Transport for London investment programme. The new double decker buses will be the first of their kind in the world, and will form part of an initiative to encourage other cities to take up the environmentally friendly technology in order to cut harmful emissions.
The only waste product generated is water. Wrightbus already supplies the British capital with its iconic Routemaster vehicles, often referred to as Boris buses, since they were introduced while Boris Johnson was Mayor of London.
On announcing the deal, Transport for London (TFL) noted that the investment would create jobs in Northern Ireland, and help it achieve its target of getting zero emissions across the public transport network.
The Wrightbus Streetdeck FCEV vehicles can carry up to 64 passengers and have been developed as part of the JIVE project (Joint Initiative for Hydrogen Vehicles across Europe) funded by the EU.
First Aberdeen in Scotland has also subsequently signed a deal for the same bus model. The contract has been jointly funded by Aberdeen City Council, the European Union and the Scottish Government.