A WELL-ESTABLISHED businessman whose factory was torched by suspected arsonists says the attack has jeopardised his plans for expansion.
John O’Connor, of O’Connor Roofing Services, spoke for the first time about the blaze which left his factory, on the Oakesway Industrial Estate, in Hartlepool, a burned-out shell.
Mr O’Connor revealed he had bought the former Hibernian Foods cake factory for his roofing company to expand into and to incorporate his 30-strong workforce, which has started to clinch million-pound contracts at its current base on the town’s Tofts Farm Industrial Estate.
But he said the fire had “put paid” to his plans and set back the venture by at least a year as the blaze had caused around £250,000 of damage.
Mr O’Connor added it is not yet known whether the building may have to be demolished.
Fire chiefs say the cause was “probably deliberate” and police are still hunting those responsible.
Company director Mr O’Connor likened himself to the traders in the London riots who had had their livelihoods ruined by arsonists.
He said: “It’s totally destroyed. I’m just devastated.
“It’s not just me, it’s what the team has put in over the years.
“I know how people feel who have been affected by arsonists in the London riots now – it’s just wanton destruction.
“If we weren’t doing as good as we are we would have been bankrupt.”
Mr O’Connor bought the 300ft by 210ft unit four-and-a-half years ago and his company set about renovating it.
He spent £54,000 on a new roof and £18,000 on skylights and had hoped to have the factory ready within seven months, with a year-long switch-over period for the workforce to move in.
But Mr O’Connor said the company has also been knocked back by having no insurance for the building.
He added: “It’s going to cost about a quarter-of-a-million pounds to put right, and as you can understand, we are in a recession.
“We were looking forward to moving in and we had been waiting to hear whether the Oakesway Industrial Estate was going to be an enterprise zone, expanding and taking the business forward.
“But we have rallied round and we will get through this.”
The father-of-three and grandfather-of-five said a structural engineer was only now due to visit the premises, as the building had been unsafe for anyone to enter and it was not yet clear whether it would have to be demolished, at a cost £60,000.
Mr O’Connor’s company was set up in 1945 by his father, John senior.
Over the years the firm has been housed in various locations, including its current premises on the Tofts Farm Industrial Estate, where it has been based for five years, Whitburn Street prior to this and the Park View Industrial Estate.
Ian Dixon, station manager with Cleveland Fire Brigade, said: “The cause was probably deliberate.”
Cleveland Police are still appealing for witnesses to the major blaze, which took place around 8pm on August 3 and saw around 50 firefighters battling to tackle flames.
Anyone with information is urged to call (01642) 302126 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.