THREE days after it was placed in administration, up to 200 staff at building firm Patton were made redundant on Friday, sparking further concerns for the future of the 100-year-old family business.
The Ballymena company with a string of major projects to its credit across the UK and further afield went into administration on Tuesday after extensive negotiations with its bankers the Northern.
Tom Keenan, of Keenan Corporate Finance, was confirmed as administrator and set about looking at the firm’s position with a view to enabling it to continue trading despite acknowledged financial difficulties.
On Friday, however, he said redundancies had become inevitable after the cancellation of some contracts with the firm.
“Following the company’s recent trading difficulties, a number of the company’s contracts were terminated by customers and the reduced level of activity in the business has directly impacted the level of staff required,” a statement said.
“The administrator will continue to review employment in the context of workload and the financial condition of the company and will keep employees informed.”
The actual number of job losses was not officially confirmed but has been put at between 180 and 200. Staff were apparently called in and informed of the position in groups of 25.
However, the News Letter understands from sources close to the business that more staff may be laid off next week, calling into doubt the long term future of the business founded in the town in 1912.
Until Friday the business employed around 320 people across three offices and working in a variety of divisions from construction to shop fit out.
The plight of the business has stirred a great deal of emotion in the Antrim area in particular where David Patton, who recently handed the chairmanship of the firm over to son Neil, is hugely respected for his community involvement.
Earlier in the day First Minister Peter Robinson conceded that redundancies at the firm seemed inevitable.
Businessman Thomas McKillen, the third generation to run the family shoe store, said that for many people the story was personal.
“This business is well-known and well-respected, both the business and the family members themselves. Then there’s the staff and their families and it rolls out beyond to the sub-contrators and their families,” he said.
“It’s a very personal thing.
“There is that sense of loss and the Patton family are suffering and we know them personally; my father went to school with David and I went to school with [his son] Neil. You know them and you feel for them.
“Yes there are a lot of people are owed a lot of money and they’re going to be in difficulties.
“Hopefully bits of the business if not all of it can be salvaged and the news is bad. What the end of it will be who knows?”
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said the news was devastating for the workers and their families and the local community as a whole.
“I have spoken with the company and with the administrator this week and I want to assure staff that, together with Invest NI, the Department of Employment and Learning, and colleagues in the entire Northern Ireland Executive, we will do all that is possible to limit the impact of the redundancies.
“Clearly, this is a difficult time for the building industry, which is why the Economy and Jobs initiative announced earlier this week by the Executive includes provision of more than £40 million to deliver a range of projects in the current financial year which will support the construction sector.
“I and Executive colleagues will continue to look at every possible option to assist the Northern Ireland economy as a whole.”
SDLP councillor Declan O’Loan said: “Once again I hope that the administrator will be able to stabilise some part of the business and give some clarity and hope to the remaining workers and creditors who are owed very large sums of money.”
As Mrs Foster also acknowledged, even the partial collapse of the firm brings potentially serious consequences for the many sub-contractors in the Province who rely on larger firms such as Patton for their work often in GB and further afield.
As one measure to deal with such problems CBI chairman in Northern Ireland Ian Coulter suggested the revival of a loan scheme previously operated by the Industrial Development Board, now replaced by Invest NI, known as a buying time financial assistance loan.
That, he argued, could be used to help companies expected to face further difficulties as the recovery continues to prove slow and challenging for the construction sector as a whole.
John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employers’ Federation, said that although the crisis facing Patton was disheartening it did not mean the rest of industry was under threat but that Government had a huge role to play.
“The concern has always been the public sector and spending on major infrastructure projects and capital budgets has been and will remain squeezed for a couple of years yet,” he said
“One of the positives is our Executive is now realising firstly that the economy is a key and the fundamental core of its strategy and that within that I think they realise that construction will literally build the foundation blocks for growing the economy.
“My argument has always been that if you are going to attract inward or indeed indigenous investment then you’ve got to have the attractive infrastructure and we have suffered here from a legacy of 30 years of under investment due to the troubles.
“Our Executive is beginning to recognise this and Friday’s announcement included very welcome news for construction.”