Annabelle Dickson, Business writer
Saturday, April 14, 2012
The starting gun was last night fired on a race to ensure that more than 1,000 jobs are saved and Lotus cars will continue to be made in Norfolk after the company behind the Lotus Formula One team revealed it was interested in buying the company.
Genii Capital – the Luxembourg investment vehicle whose F1 team was sponsored by Group Lotus – last night confirmed to the EDP it is running the rule over the company’s books with a view to buying the Hethel-based firm.
But the admission comes amid mounting speculation that the car manufacturer’s new owner DRB-Hicom is looking for a quick sale of the loss-making firm to a Chinese buyer.
Pressure is mounting on DRB-Hicom, which bought Group Lotus’s parent company Proton earlier this year, not to cut a deal which will see Norfolk jobs and assets destroyed and moved offshore.
However, in what is being seen as an alarming move, Proton’s acting chief executive Sri Syed Zainal is already believed to be in China courting two interested parties, raising the prospect of a nightmare ‘MG Rover’ scenario for the British Government of Lotus assets and production simply being shipped to the Far East following a deal.
MG Rover went into administration in 2005 with its key assets purchased by Nanjing Automobile Group, with it restarting MG sports car and sports saloon production away from the UK in 2007.
A similar move for Lotus would be a massive blow to the Norfolk economy and the government which last year promised more than £10m to the car maker from its flagship regional growth fund.
Such has been the uncertainty surrounding the future of the company, that Group Lotus issued an extraordinary statement on Wednesday seeking to deny a host of rumours, including suggestions the car firm was about to go into administration in order to facilitate a quick deal with the Chinese to take the debt-ridden company off its hands.
But hopes that owners DRB-Hicom could have sneaked through a quiet sale appear to have been blown out of the water as the plight of Lotus has been taken to the highest levels of power in both Britain and Malaysia.
Prime minister David Cameron raised the Lotus question during his visit to Malaysia this week, and while the outcome of the talks is not yet clear, it is thought that the publicity surrounding DRB-Hicom’s actions has caused severe embarrassment within Malaysian government circles, which could yet help turn the tide in favour of a deal to save Norfolk jobs.
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon said Group Lotus was one of the most important local employers in Norfolk and it was vital that any solution to the current uncertainty should safeguard jobs.
“The business has tremendous assets, most notably a highly talented and skilled workforce and there is every reason to expect that its future can be secured,” Mr Bacon said.
“I understand that there are a number of investors who are interested in buying into Group Lotus precisely because they want to keep it as a going concern in Norfolk. DRB Hicom – which is the new owner of Proton – and therefore the ultimate owners of Group Lotus have a clear duty to the workforce of Lotus of which I am sure they are well aware. I will continue to work day and night and day to help produce the right solution.”
Genii owner Gerard Lopez is believed to have met DRB-Hicom executives to put the case for buying Group Lotus.
Confirming their interest in Lotus, a Genii spokesman said: “We do not see any reason why we would move production away from Norfolk. The historic link is to Norfolk and we would not be looking to move anything away from there.”
Genii is so far the only company to publicly state its interest. Meanwhile there has been no signs of any public enthusiasm from Caterham Cars, or its owner Tony Fernandes, the millionaire Malaysian businessman and QPR Football Club owner, to buy Group Lotus.
Caterham, which has a base in Hingham, last night declined to comment on the Lotus situation.