Is Hugh Facey Britain's best boss?

The MT Interview: Gripple boss Hugh Facey is giving the firm he has sweated over for decades away to its staff.You can't take it with you, reckons Sheffield's Mr Widget.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2015

In post-industrial Britain, it has become a given that the dismantling of the nation’s historic manufacturing base in the 1980s was a drastic but life-saving surgical intervention. The old body corporate was moribund, uncompetitive and no longer fit for purpose – a hefty injection of consumerist individualism was required to fuel entry to new high-margin, capital-efficient, fast-turnaround sectors in a binary world where the victor would take the spoils and the devil would take the hindmost.

Yes, there was a risk that the operation might kill the patient, but how else was a nation hog-tied by re­strictive practices, chronic underinvestment and a poisonous nostalgia for vanishing imperial markets to reinvigorate itself and thrive in the 21st century? Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet used to call it TINA – There Is No Alternative.

She did have a point. But such choices are rarely quite as stark as they appear, or are painted, at the time. By building his multi-award-winning company, Sheffield-based wire-tensioning specialist Gripple, to a defiantly old-school prescription, Yorkshire entrepreneur Hugh Facey provides a fascinating glimpse into an alternative economic future that never was. Or perhaps one whose time is yet to come.

Try this for starters. ‘What’s the business for? It’s not to make money. I started wi’ nowt and I’m goin’ to go out wi’ nowt. It creates employment for 350 people, and in 20 years’ time for 2,000 people, I hope. Capital is a tool of labour, not the other way around. God created Adam first, he didn’t create the pound or the euro or the dollar.’ Or this: ‘I don’t care about profit, it doesn’t bother me at all. I could make more if I ran the com­pany for the short term, but that’s not what matters. It’s how you run the business – get that right and the bottom line comes out right too.’

Stocky and silver-haired, cricket-loving Facey is the Fred Trueman of the wire world, the man the Daily Mail calls ‘The best boss in Britain’. There’s hardly a tenet of received management wisdom that he won’t lob an outswinger at. Bonuses are ‘morally wrong’, a product of ‘bad management’. HR and procurement departments are ‘bullshit’ (as are most share option schemes) and the current obsession with costs is futile. ‘Why worry about costs? It always costs too much to make a new product at the start. When we started, we had 28 workers and made 250,000 Gripples in the first year. Now, one person can do that many in four or five shifts. So you develop the right product and then drive the cost out. Don’t try and cost things first.’

His contrarian approach extends throughout the firm – there’s no clocking in or out and retirement for older staff is optional. Sales figures are distributed daily and ‘Hughie’ is used to getting a talking to from all and sundry if the numbers aren’t up to snuff. ‘If the sales are flagging, the warehouseman might say to me: "You want to go and kick those buggers." Everybody knows the figures, there’s none of this bloody secrecy.’

Old-school doesn’t mean backward-looking though, and he certainly doesn’t believe that there was – or is –anything predestined about the decline of British manufacturers, or the corresponding rise of their Asian oppos. ‘That’s just accountants: they only think about today. But if you think about the future it’s different. By 2050, for example, China will be the largest economy in the world and it will have a wealthy middle class of its own. It will no longer be a cheap manufacturing centre – but Britain could be again.’

Ah yes, accountants. A high-temperature roasting awaits any bean-counters who stumble into Facey’s personal version of purgatory: ‘Businesses should never be run by accountants. The trouble is that, as money has become god, the people who count the money have also become gods, but they are the world’s worst when it comes to running a business. If you’re running a cricket team, you send in your best batsmen to get runs and your best bowlers to get wickets. The last person you’d send in to do either job is the bloody scorer. But that’s all accountants are – they keep score.’

Accountants may be very good at keeping tabs on how much it cost to do something, he says, but the cheapest thing of all – doing nothing – is a certain recipe for disaster. ‘You won’t find many manufacturing businesses spending 5% on R&D like we do. Why not? Because they are run by bloody accountants.’

No surprise then that there aren’t many accountants inside the Old West Gun Works, Gripple’s HQ in the heart of what used to be heavy industrial Sheffield, but is now, in the vernacular of modern Britain, a business park – although rumour has it that there’s a CFO in there somewhere, presumably a pretty thick-skinned specimen of the breed.

It’s open-plan, with the only wall – a glass one – separating the office space from the immaculate shop floor. A lifesize fibreglass cow and a steel sculpture of a guitar hang from the ceiling above the rows of machines and people sorting and packing Gripples, and there’s AstroTurf in the canteen. The buzz is definitely more dotcom than rustbelt. And far from lording it over the masses from some plush plutocrat’s den, the boss sits at his modest desk – identical to all the others – in the corner, by the loos. ‘We’re all equal here,’ he declares.

The Gripple itself is as unlikely-sounding a success as its progenitor – a small die-cast metal box with a hole at either end, into each of which a piece of fencing wire is inserted. Inside are two spring-loaded ceramic rollers, arranged so that when the wire is pulled, they grip it – hence the name, a portmanteau of grip and pull.

The Gripple is a small die-cast metal box with a hole at either end, where a piece of fencing wire is insertedIt sounds like something dreamed up by a cardigan-clad habitué of the garden shed, an arcane gadget that wouldn’t make it past the first round of Dragons’ Den. But Facey has sold tens of millions of them since 1988, and the business turned over nearly £33m in 2011 – 80% of it export. The idea sprang from a chat with a farmer on a damp Welsh hillside in 1986. The farmer was bemoaning the fact that there was no better way to join two bits of fencing wire than by twisting the ends together. Wire salesman Facey reckoned he could do something about that, and set to work on what became the first Gripple.

It took four years and numerous design revisions to iron out problems with breakages and the gripping mechanism – which leads us to another of his favourite adages: speed to market. ‘If you don’t get it right first time, it doesn’t matter. Customers will tell you "that’s good" or "that’s not reet".’

The original idea was to give the Gripple away as an incentive for farmers to buy rolls of fencing wire, but initial response was so favourable that he changed his mind. ‘We did some market research about the name,’ he says, ‘and we asked how much people would pay for one. They said 20p! Couldn’t believe it – and we’d been going to give them away. These were farmers we’re talking about, the tightest bastards out there. But they’d pay 20p a time not to bugger up their fingers joining wire.’

Facey sold his first company, Estate Wire, and founded Gripple in 1991 to concentrate on his clever wire-tensioning gadgets. These days, Gripples do sterling service all over the globe and feature in the world’s longest fence. The 5,624km Dingo Barrier, which runs across the south-eastern corner of Australia, is held together entirely by Sheffield’s finest. Viticulturists use Gripples to support their vines, as do soft-fruit growers – even the doyenne of Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, Bunny Guinness, is a fan.

The firm has established operations in France, the US and Australia, plus newer ones in India and Brazil. ‘India is fantastic – just had a £70k order come in from Delhi yesterday,’ he enthuses. ‘But Brazil is a hard place to do business; the bureaucracy is crazy.’

Since the early days, a panoply of hooks, clips and other fittings have joined the product line-up, transforming the prosaic business of fencing in the way that the zip fastener or press stud transformed fashion. Readers of a suitably anoraky bent might want to check out Gripple on Twitter, where a series of videos can be found showcasing the remarkable variety of the range.

Gripple produces most of its products inhouse

Coming up with more and better new ideas than the competition is Gripple’s modus operandi. ‘Thirty-seven per cent of our sales come from products we weren’t even making four years ago,’ says Facey. ‘We’re driven by innovation: we develop new products and get them out there quick.’

It’s the potential of the construction industry that gets Facey most excited these days – services such as lighting, plumbing and ventilation are traditionally fixed using solid mountings, but, by suspending them from wire harnesses and fittings made with Gripples, installation time can be drastically cut. It’s the perfect opportunity for yet another explosion in the product range, with anchor bolts, brackets and supports of all shapes and sizes hitting the market.

There are, for example, 60,000 Gripple No 2 Hangers in Chicago’s Trump Tower, and 18,000 Gripple Corner Saddles in London’s 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin.

There’s no reason why other British manufacturers couldn’t be equally innovative, he says, except that they make the accountant’s mistake of worrying about today rather than thinking about tomorrow. ‘If someone wants to have a punch-up over how few bowls of rice they pay their people, well, they still can’t make a
Gripple as quickly as we can. Labour costs are bugger-all anyway, because we’ve invested in technology. If you worry about the bottom line, you don’t invest and you don’t make money.’

Along with accountants, there is one other motley crew he holds in almost equally low esteem – politicians. ‘This country is being stuffed by its politicians, who are licking the arses of bankers. I’ve told them all – Nick Clegg [MP for Sheffield Hallam, of course], Vince Cable, Danny Alexander – that you have to give manufacturing 100% capital allowances. Capital allowances don’t cost government anything, it’s just deferred payment; and in return you get businesses investing and growing, so that in the end they will pay more tax.’

Manufacturing is what it’s all about for Facey. It’s a matter of personal pride that Gripple produces in-house as many bits of the products that bear its name as is possible. Cheerfully heterodox in a world where specialisation and core competencies have been the orthodoxy for decades, Gripple winds its own springs, produces its own plastic mouldings and owns 40% of the die-casting business that makes the zinc bodies for its fittings, just down the road in Rotherham. Unable to buy wire rope flexible and strong enough to hang lights without unsightly kinks, it decided to make its own. In fact, the only parts of a Gripple not made by Gripple are the rollers themselves – ceramics being too specialist even for Facey.

He can’t bear to see a good idea go to waste, so when random inspiration strikes, he tends to dive straight in rather than viewing it as a dangerous distraction. Thus, he’s working on a machine-tool business to sell some of the specialised manufacturing equipment Gripple has developed over the years. And there’s Loadhog, the other leg of the Facey empire, producing reusable, time-and-money-saving packing and loading equipment for the logistics business.

Based in a building opposite the Sheffield Forgemasters works, whence the ‘pipeline’ barrel of the Iraqi supergun started its ill-fated journey in 1990, Loadhog turns out pallets with built-in wheels for easy handling; custom-made tie straps; and patented crinkly edged plastic loading sheets to hold stacked bottles in place. A corner has even been given over to 25-year-old forensic science entrepreneur Lucy Nuttall. She has developed a fast-setting compound for taking casts of felonious footprints and is busy flogging it to police forces across the country. Facey, with his nose for talent and love of a good idea, is helping her – and a select few others – via an incubator scheme called Incub.

All clever stuff, but it doesn’t seem to have much in common with the wire-tensioning business. ‘Why not? We’re manufacturers,’ he says. ‘It’s what we do.’ There’s really only one cardinal sin in Facey’s book. ‘Don’t chuff around. There’s too much fannying about in business. Just get on with it.’


 Born in Huddersfield, Facey is ruddy-cheeked and solid, with the same air of brick-outhouse permanence as the town he grew up in, Marsden (a wild and woolly spot where some of cult sitcom The League of Gentlemen was shot). His father was the local vicar, and there is a pastoral strand running through Facey’s backstory that goes a long way towards explaining his singular approach.

He may have chosen a more earthbound calling, but both his sisters are vicar’s wives, and he believes in taking care of his flock. ‘I’m just a salesman, like he was,’ he jokes. ‘But I believe in looking after people. Look after your people and be the best at what you do.’

He shares a clergyman’s faith that people work better with a sense of common purpose and understanding, but is robustly capitalist at the same time – rather like those muscular Victorian philanthropists the Lever Brothers or Bradford’s Titus Salt. Facey’s employee share ownership scheme is a case in point. ‘Everyone’s a shareholder,’ he says. ‘But, being Yorkshiremen, we don’t give them the shares; they have to buy them.’

Part of the contract of employment for staff, from the cleaners to the boardroom, is that they all have to buy at least £1,000 worth of Gripple shares in their first year with the company. ‘We’ll lend them the money and they can pay it back in instalments. It makes them more committed, because they’ve invested in their employer’ – unlike share options schemes. ‘If you give someone options, that doesn’t make them more committed, because they haven’t paid for them. People don’t appreciate something if they get it for nothing.’

Dividends equal to one-third of post-tax profits are paid in three instalments a year, and that’s all the incentive payment anyone gets. ‘Bonuses are completely and utterly wrong. If someone gets a sale, who actually makes that sale? It’s morally wrong to give a bonus to the salesperson, it’s just bad management.’

Shares are valued once a year, at 30 times the dividend – equivalent to a 10x PE ratio. Plenty of employees buy more than the minimum requirement – ‘quite a few people have more than half a million quids’ worth!’ – and an employee who bought £1,000 of shares at the start of the scheme in 1994 has received dividends of £5,600 on shares now worth £23,000.

Facey is expecting 2012 sales to be up around 8% on the year before, although profits will fall due to recent investment. That means the share price and divi will drop. What happens to employee engagement then? ‘In 2009, everyone was losing money. Our share price did fall, but staff bought over £300,000 of shares. Why? Because they believed in the business and saw it was a buying opportunity.’

Gripple's innovation centre

Married and with two daughters (one a doctor, the other a manager at Heinz), Facey, 67, is executive chairman and has taken a step back from day-to-day operations over the past couple of years. ‘I have MDs and I try to leave them to it. I just come in and growl at them, stop any chuffing about – and pat them on the back too, of course,’ he adds quickly. ‘I hope I will know the day when I become a pain in the arse and stop then,’ he says.

So he’s at the point where the thoughts of many an entrepreneur turn to selling up, kicking back and going to live on the proverbial desert island. Not Facey, though, for whom the concept of work/life balance is irrelevant, there being no practical distinction between the two. Instead of cashing in, he’s going to give the company away – to its staff. ‘You can’t take it with you, and I’m not leaving it to my daughters. I told them when they were very young that they would have to look after themselves.’

He doesn’t much fancy life on that desert island anyhow. ‘Why would I want to do that? I enjoy work too much. There’s only so many Sudokus you can solve, you’ve got to keep creating. And I want to put something back.’

Instead, he and his co-founder are in the process of signing over their dominant stakes to Glide, a company that will hold them in trust for the benefit of Gripple’s workforce. They are two years into a 10-year transition period, at the end of which the firm will effectively be owned by its staff, à la John Lewis Partnership.

So if all goes according to plan, in eight years the workers will be the ones approving – or otherwise – the appointment of the board. That degree of employee involvement would make most British entrepreneurs quake in their boots and start squirrelling their dosh offshore. But not Facey. ‘The difference is that I don’t think this business is because of me, it’s because of us.’

This transfer of ownership is his last big ambition. ‘I would like to see the firm move safely to the position where Glide is the main shareholder along with all the staff, and to see it flourishing not under me but under them. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.’

It’s clear that his idea of a perfect epitaph would be for Gripple to live on as a sort of socio-economic blueprint for a fairer future – one led by a manufacturing renaissance, of course. But a couple of crucial provisos are attached to his plan, via a pair of Golden Shares, one held by Glide, the other by his daughters through the family trust. The first is that the business effectively cannot be sold, to eliminate any temptation for future generations to cash in. The second? That Gripple must never be run by accountants.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING FACEY

  • Maintain the flow of new business ideas without neglecting the firm’s strength in its existing markets

  • Spread the word about employee ownership to other interested businesses

  • Remember to be nice to his accountant!



FACEY IN A MINUTE

1945:  Born 7 December in Huddersfield, W Yorks. Brought up in Marsden. Takes HND in business studies at Sheffield College of Technology (now Sheffield Hallam University)
1966: Graduate trainee, Tinsley Wire
1984: Founds Estate Wire
1988: The first Gripple is produced
1991: Gripple Ltd opens for business
2001: Gripple Inc established in Chicago
2003: Founds Loadhog
2010: Starts 10-year process of giving Gripple away to its employees




 

 



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