WATERCOOLER company Ebac could become the latest manufacturer to snub the North-East in favour of low-cost production in the Far East with its planned scheme to branch out into refrigerators.

The £30m Bishop Auckland company wants to launch a range of luxury fridges to help diversify its business, and is in talks with manufacturers in China and Bangladesh.

However, chairman John Elliott last night told The Northern Echo that if the scheme proved successful, the firm would consider bringing production back to the region.

Up to 20 jobs would be created as a result.

Ebac, which employs 350 people in the region and another 100 overseas, hopes the planned scheme can double the size of their business to £60m within five years.

Mr Elliott said: "At first, it won't be feasible to produce in the North-East, because of production costs and volumes of production. The initial investment here could be as much as £2m. We can go to the Chinese and do it at a relatively small cost.

"But I certainly wouldn't write off that they could be made in the UK. I am not against making them here. If we did that here, it would lead to jobs - maybe 15 or 20.

"If the fridges come off, then that could easily double the size of our business in the next five years," said Mr Elliott, who said it looked "60 per cent likely" the scheme would go ahead.

Some aspects of assembly and design of the fridges could be carried out at its County Durham base from the start, he added.

A final decision on whether the scheme will go ahead is expected in spring next year.

"Even in planning for the fridges, we really want to focus on flexibility of our products - that's not really a strength from China, but it is here," said Mr Elliott.

"Manufacturing is what we love most of all - we love making things - but we have to diversify the business to grow sales. We are a manufacturer in Bishop Auckland and long may that continue."

The company - whose customers include Coca-Cola, Argos and Comet - is also currently making moves into India, after setting up Ebac India to sell water coolers.