If there were more companies like Gripple, the Sheffield steel industry wouldn't be such a pale shadow of its former self. Gripple, initially an ingenious device for joining wire, has become the basis of a fast-growing industrial fastening system used in projects ranging from the Millennium Stadium to HM Treasury. Housed in a 19th-century former munitions factory, its eponymous maker is a worthy successor to the steel city's engineering tradition, exporting 85% of its production and growing 30% a year through a stream of seemingly simple but extremely sophisticated innovations.
Gripple grew out of a chat in 1984 between Hugh Facey, then chairman of a fencing company, and a Welsh farmer looking for a better way of joining fencing wire than pliers and a knot. In 1988 Facey sold the fencing company (still a customer) and invested the proceeds in the new product he had been developing.
The company initially thought it was in fencing. But the Gripple soon found wider agricultural applications, particularly in vineyards. This got the firm into tensioning and forced it to learn about international business (it is now a shining light of language learning amid the monolingual UK manufacturing desert).
But then in 1995, disaster. Gripple, which does nothing by halves, had invested pounds 1 million (revenues were then pounds 3 million) in a new range of Gripples for the wire-rope industry. But relying on distributors' promises rather than its own salesforce, sales failed to materialise. What was it to do with all that investment lying idle?
After two lean years, it found the answer.
Lateral thinking identified that suspending mechanical and electrical services - lighting and ventilation, for example - using Gripples and (yes) wire rope was a faster and cheaper installation method than attaching them on threaded rods. Sales of Hang-Fast, sold as a kit to the construction industry, took off and in five years have grown to pounds 7 million, half the group total.
Its secret? Like any successful company, it spends time and effort getting the key elements of the business model to work together. One is an emphasis on intellectual property: it spends 6% of revenues on R&D (a huge figure for engineering), and spends pounds 200,000 a year protecting its 30 patents. 'We won't make anything we can't patent,' says MD Chris Middleton.
Supporting the IP is a manufacturing system that is catching the product up for sophistication. That is partly down to self-developed special-purpose machinery that raised production from 250,000 at one a minute in 1989 to 17 million at 60 a minute in 2000. But much more, the firm would say, is down to people. Always an extrovert, people-friendly culture - salaried status, private health insurance and pension, all shares held by employees - since 2000 it has married that with a more disciplined approach to manufacturing - with remarkable results in terms of housekeeping (among the best the judges have seen), quality and yield. Direct labour cost is now a minute 1.2% of sales. Says production director Les Cooper: 'Now it's clear why we don't need to manufacture in China.'
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