The business community in Kilkeel was weighing up the situation yesterday as discussions continued about the possible sale of a US company which employs over 800 people in the town.
B/E Aerospace, a £10bn company based in Florida, makes seats for the aircraft industry but is now considering selling or splitting up its business.
Gregory Cochrane is manager of a Spar based only 300 yards from the Kilkeel plant.
“The factory is vitally important for us,” he said. “We have 34 employees and a large part of our business is based on workers coming to us for breakfast, lunch or tea or doing top-up shopping .
“It is such a big employer, and in turn we have some 15 local suppliers depending on our custom too – for vegetables, meat, pies, potatoes, bread and coleslaw.”
The mood in the town is that people are “very concerned,” he said.
“In other towns it is expected that businesses may close, but in Kilkeel fishing and construction have been decimated and many people in the factory are the main breadwinners in their families.”
Daniel Tuson of Hannas’ newsagent had a similar view.
“A lot of our business does come from people going to work there – they must buy at least 50 newspapers from us in the mornings as well as cigarettes and things like that,” he said.
Paul Benfield is the Hertfordshire-based business development manager of Metalweb, which currently has four employees in Kilkeel supplying the factory.
“The sale could lead to a merger which could mean even more work for everyone,” he said.
“What a fabulous facility they have built up in Kilkeel over 25 years. If any company was to buy them why would you close it down?”
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said she was seeking to meet management for reassurances about the jobs.
Neither the Department of Enterprise nor B/E Aerospace offered any comment to the News Letter yesterday.
Analysis by Richard Sherriff
With a staff close to 1,000 the importance of the B/E plant to the economic well-being of Kilkeel and the wider area is all too obvious.
However, it seems unlikely in the immediate future that any new owners would wish to interfere with what has been a successful venture for the current owners.
Acquired by the US firm in 1993, the business has hugely increased staffing levels and grown production to match.
Turnover, on interior furnishings and seats costing as much as $90,000 apiece, doubled between 2005 and 2008, and although the business took a hit during the recession, it remains in the forefront of development and innovation as the industry gears up for renewed growth.
With a skilled and award-winning workforce and a competitive economy appreciated by many other US businesses, it is difficult to see why new owners would want to interfere with a globally endorsed formula.