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

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.’

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