Northern Ireland

Wrightbus: Who is Jeff Wright founder of Green Pastures?

Jeff Wright Image copyright STEPHEN DAVISON

"There have been some pretty horrendous things said about me."

An emotional Jeff Wright addressed his congregation at Green Pastures Church in Ballymena late last month.

The pastor has been at the centre of a storm over the the future of bus-making firm Wrightbus, of which he was the majority shareholder.

Known locally as Pastor Jeff, the former Wrightbus director says he has been the subject of death threats since the company entered administration, putting 1,200 people out of work.

The company was started in 1946 from a tin shed in Ballymena by Robert Wright and his son, William - now Sir William Wright, and Jeff's father.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Wrightbus is best known for building the New Routemaster, or 'Boris Bus', which were ordered from the firm by Boris Johnson, the then mayor of London

Sir William, a one-time UUP councillor, saw the business's stratospheric rise to industry success, and is seen as a father figure of industry in the town.

Despite his own reservations he did not have the necessary "wisdom" to run the firm, Jeffrey William Wright - Sir William's only son - always seemed destined to take over the family firm.

Born in July 1963, he studied at the nearby Cambridge House Grammar before going to Ballymena Tech, and then began to work in the factory.

Along with his father and two sisters, Jeff Wright said he "fought to build this company from when I was a big skinny 19-year-old apprentice in a boiler suit".

'Pastor and visionary'

A talented footballer, he played as a forward for his hometown Ballymena United from 1984 to 1985, and Coleraine Football Club from 1987 to 1988.

But there are few other details publicly available about his development as a businessman - or a preacher.

He sometimes worshipped at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast and its founder, James McConnell, was at the Green Pastures service last month to lend his support.

In 2007, the married father-of-two set up Green Pastures. The evangelical church's website describes him as its "lead pastor, founder and visionary".

It's hard not to draw parallel with another famous son of Ballymena.

Like the late firebrand founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, Ian Paisley, Pastor Jeff set up the Church from scratch.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Newly unemployed Wrightbus workers hung their work shirts outside Green Pastures church in Ballymena at a protest last Sunday

Jeff Wright has described Green Pastures as "a place of refuge for the thousands of people that need, as I did, to find Jesus".

The Church has been praised for its community work: Its charity, Connect, is known for helping the vulnerable and partners with the Ballymena Foodbank.

It is perhaps not surprising that in Northern Ireland, a society drawn so much on religious lines, that the Church's plans to create its own self-contained village were approved.

Bought in 2012, the 100-acre site beside the A26 outside Ballymena is impossible to miss.

When finished, The Gateway aims to offer social housing, shops, a hotel, riverside restaurants, an education centre and a nursing home.

The project has been dogged by complaints from local shopkeepers about its impact on local business.

The plans were scaled back in 2015, with a proposed supermarket being scrapped.

But how The Gateway - and Green Pastures - will be affected by Wrightbus's future remains unclear.

God the shareholder

The Wright family says the collapse of the business was due to a fall in demand for buses.

But some workers have expressed concern that money donated to the Church weakened the business.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Wrightbus founder Sir William Wright was applauded by protesters in Ballymena

"We made God a shareholder in the business - 26% of Wrights is owned by an evangelical trust - in order to make sure He was central in everything the Wrights company does," the pastor told the Irish Times in 2017.

Green Pastures received £15m in donations from The Wrightbus Group over six years.

In 2016-2017, about £4m was donated to the Church by the Wright Group's parent firm, the Cornerstone Group Ltd, which reported a pre-tax loss of £1.73m in the same financial reporting period.

One local source, who did not wish to be named, said: "It's one thing to give money to the Church in boom times but why when it was losing money?"

There have also been suggestions a potential deal to save the company was stymied by an expensive leasing clause.

The Wrightbus factory is owned by a separate firm, Whirlwind Property Two, which is controlled by Jeff Wright.

It is understood that potential buyers were being asked for about £1m a year to lease the property.

The family denies acting unreasonably during attempts to sell the business, and negotiations are continuing in a bid to save the company.

They say one bidder had agreed to lease the property before withdrawing the offer.

'My beautiful wife'

In Sunday 29 September's sermon, Jeff Wright defended his management of Wrightbus and rejected any accusations of wrongdoing.

Image caption Some workers have expressed concern that donations to the church weakened the business

"I have my faults and many many failings and had many mess ups - just ask my beautiful wife," he told a packed congregation at Green Pastures.

"But it seems strange to me: why I would jeopardise 74 years of blood sweat and tears to make the company great and even see my own son (and) the fourth generation of Wrights lose their inheritance?"

Mr Wright said those who criticised him did not know him.

"I have learnt from dad there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, especially since there are still some great people working very, very hard to not just keep the delicate negotiations alive but also to try to bring a new investor to the table."

'Nowhere to go'

As he spoke, accompanied by a softly playing pianist, a different narrative was playing out metres away.

Hundreds of people were protesting outside the church - and they are angry.

One former Wrightbus worker said they were there because they had "nowhere to go, nobody to see" and they wanted answers.

While protestors waved signs and placards daubed with allegations about Jeff Wright, the mood towards the company was not all negative.

Sir William Wright was applauded as he stopped to speak to some of the protesters on his way into the church.

Even amid the social media outrage, there was little criticism of the 92-year-old.

His grand-daughter, Fiona Knowles, stood in solidarity with workers outside the church - and suggested there were divisions in the family.

"Our family has been destroyed by this and it could have been avoided," she said.

"It is hard to watch, when you watch your granda who has built this place up since he was 16, to have it destroyed, it is very hard to watch."

Locally, Jeff Wright is much more associated with Green Pastures than he is with the company, says Dessie Blackadder, the editor of the Ballymena Guardian.

Yet it was Jeff Wright's name that features most prominently on the protest placards.

Pastor Jeff recently posted a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln on his Facebook page.

"My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right."