POOLE’S biggest private sector employer, Sunseeker International, is planning to axe a fifth of its workforce in a major blow to Dorset’s economy.

The luxury boat builder said 460 jobs could go as it grapples with the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

The company suspended production early in the Covid-19 lockdown and told suppliers they would not be paid while the factories were shut.

An email to staff said yesterday the vast majority of employees were still on the government-backed furlough scheme.

It said: “Looking to the future, and consistent with many other businesses, Sunseeker must now adapt to deliver on its substantial new model development programme and continue to employ as many people as possible, in the local community.

“To achieve this, we must remain competitive and rebalance the business for the next 12 months to match our production output. Regrettably, around 460 employees from across the business could be affected. The total number represents 20 per cent of the workforce and we will now entering to a formal consultation process with our employees to consider the proposals.”

A consultation lasting at least 45 days will begin next Thursday, May 14.

The email added: “We are committed to maintaining our current UK manufacturing capabilities and we have no plans to move our brand or production elsewhere. We are confident the changes we are proposing will safeguard our future, so that we can emerge as a strong and flexible business, enabling us to continue to build upon our already world-renowned design, engineering and production capabilities.”

Sunseeker employs around 2,600 people in Poole and Portland and is a major recruiter of apprentices.

In a statement, Sunseeker said it was “pleased to announce that it is preparing to reopen full production imminently”. The company has been working very closely with various government bodies, local authorities and British Marine in order to listen, learn and implement safe working practices.

“A great deal of work is taking place to prepare the business for a welcome phased return to ‘normal’ business although understandably, this will take several weeks as we align and synchronise the various teams,” it added.

“Although re-starting the business is complex, the various management teams have developed a cohesive plan to bring as many employees back in a safe, controlled manner that safeguards themselves, colleagues, suppliers and visitors.”

It said it had to adapt to ensure it continued to manufacture in Dorset “employing as many people as possible, here in the local community”.

It added: “To achieve this, we must remain competitive and rebalance the business for the next 12 months to match our production output. Regrettably, around 460 employees from across the business could be affected.

“The company is immensely proud to be part of the local community, the skilled and talented people it employs, its world-class supply chain and its loyal customers worldwide. We are committed to design, engineer and manufacture world-class boats for another 50 years here in Dorset but we must adjust quickly in order to weather the current challenges. We extend our thanks to everyone for their support and understanding at this time.”

Chief executive Andrea Frabetti said: “We will be resuming full production over the next few weeks subject to guidance from HM Government. We are in a strong position to resume our substantial new model development programme, manufacturing and deliveries as soon as possible in a safe, controlled manner.

"We are immensely proud of our role both within the local community and in support of British exports; now is the time to redouble our efforts and support the country back to prosperity.”

Sunseeker was founded in Christchurch by Robert Braithwaite in 1969, as Friars Cliff Marine, selling other companies’ boats.

Renamed Poole Powerboats when it moved to the town in 1969, it began producing boats of its own two years later.

It became Sunseeker International in 1985 and its boats were sought after across the world, appearing in four James Bond films.

The business was bought in 2013 by the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda.

It lost £41million in 2014 and shed 300 jobs, but was in the black and hiring two years later.

At last year’s Southampton International Boat Show, it unveiled its Predator 60 EVO, the first in a “renovation” of its product line.

It planned to grow its range from 2018 models in 2018 to 24 in 2022.