Friday, April 13, 2012
From the highest levels of power in this country a message is being shouted loud and clear – the long term future of the famous Hethel-based car manufacturer, Lotus, matters to this region.
Following the sale of Group Lotus’s parent company, Proton, to Malaysian giant DRB-Hicom, speculation about the future of Lotus has reached fever pitch, with potential buyers said to be lining up as the new owners go through the books.
It is not just Norfolk’s emotional attachment to the world-famous brand. It matters economically.
With more than 1,200 employees in our region, and more elsewhere in the UK, there are many relying on the company for their livelihoods.
Norfolk County Council roughly estimates the knock-on effect to the local economy of having Lotus based in Hethel is between £40m and £50m.
But it is not just jobs for the present. The company supports much-needed jobs for the future and of the young. The group is backing a proposed University Technical College and it runs apprenticeship schemes.
It is also one of the sponsors of our beloved Canaries.
Lotus has been at a similar crossroads before in its proud history and long standing employees are no strangers to speculation about new owners.
In 1996 the company was sold by Italian firm Bugatti International to Proton. Bugatti’s charismatic Romano Artioli – who presided over Lotus – was not without controversy himself and unveiled the Elise, named after his granddaughter, in 1995.
And it has always struggled to be profitable – at times making spectacular losses.
Its latest set of company accounts filed at Companies House show a £20m loss. The current finances are unclear, but around 100 staff were laid off last year.
Things appeared to be looking up for Lotus when business secretary Vince Cable took a spin around the Hethel track in an Evora S and hailed the expansion of a Norfolk sports car brand.
The firm’s Malaysian owners were believed to be looking to sink around £200m into a 10-year business plan to transform the company from a specialist niche car company into a profitable sports car brand, which would include rolling out an automated production line system. The Hethel Engineering Centre would be placed firmly at the heart of this new vision, becoming the firm’s centre of applied research.
A few months later the company was promised a £10m Regional Growth Fund loan by the government.
But hopes of an exciting future for the company now appear to have receded yet again as new owners DRB-Hicom now undertake a forensic health check of the books. DRB-Hicom are currently deciding if they want to continue with Proton’s plan. And their findings will have huge implications for the Norfolk economy.
If they decide to dispose of Group Lotus, it is feared a new owner could take the brand and move production elsewhere. Andy Wood, chairman of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Lotus is a key business in the region.
“It is a global brand and has been synonymous with Norfolk for half a century.
“With our local authority colleagues, local MPs and government we are working to ensure that the company’s new owners recognise the importance of the company and its workforce to the local economy, and the skills and resources we offer.”
He said East Anglia was a natural centre for advanced manufacturing and engineering.
North Norfolk MP and business minister Norman Lamb said he was closely monitoring the ongoing situation.
“It is such an important employer in Norfolk and such a strong brand that everybody wants positive news about the future of this really important manufacturer,” he said.
“It is incredibly important for Norfolk and the fact that the government decided to support it with Regional Growth Fund money show the government sees the importance of the manufacturing business in Norfolk and that very strong product range that was being developed there.”
The Lotus Question has now been elevated to the highest echelons of government with David Cameron discussing the issue with his Malaysian counterpart on his current Asian visit.
We can all make educated guesses where Lotus will go from this point, but for now, only the executives at DRB-Hicom really know the future of this Norfolk institution.
Local political and economic leaders have spoken with one voice in recent days.
Time will tell how much influence they can have on a decision which will ultimately be made on the other side of the world.
For those 1,200 employees, let’s hope they reach the right conclusion.
Norfolk’s Dunston Hall hotel is under new ownership after being snapped up in a UK-wide deal.