Getting to Gripple with manufacturing

With a history dating back to 1984, Gripple is a Sheffield-based manufacturing success story that started by making field fencing, barbed wire and fencing staples in a disused furniture factory, and now produces a growing range of fastening products across three state-of-the-art sites which are exported to over 80 countries around the world. Neil Mead paid a visit to Yorkshire to meet the team and learn more about this fascinating firm.

In 1984 Hugh Facey set up an agricultural fencing manufacturing company called Estate Wire Ltd in a disused Sheffield furniture warehouse. The commercial challenge of launching a new business selling a commodity product against established volume manufacturers would put most investors off, but not Facey. Undaunted, he took this entrepreneurial risk on his 38th birthday.

Facey's previous work experience had prepared him well for taking such a life-changing decision. He fully understood this market and more, as he had already held the position of group sales and marketing director of merchant products for Tinsley Wire, which manufactured and dominated the UK market with its brand leading stock fence, Aylock.

By 1988, Estate Wire's manufacturing capability had expanded substantially to service the fencing needs of the contractor and farmer through investment that included three Wafios built field fence machines, alongside a series of barbed wire and U-shaped staple machines.

Gripple is born

Gripple was established in response to the frustrations of a farmer. Aggravated by the traditional and often tricky ways of joining fence wires by bending and knotting, the farmer bemoaned the lack of alternatives available to Facey; through this conversation the seeds of an idea were planted and the concept of the Gripple joiner was born.

Gripple is both a brand and also part of a product called a Gripple wire joiner/hanger. The original Gripple product (simply named because it grips and pulls wire) is basically a small zinc die cast housing with two channels that hold a spring-loaded wedge or roller – when a piece of wire is inserted, it compresses the spring and bites into the teeth on the wedge or roller.

The Gripple joiner is a patented invention and was launched commercially into the UK market in September 1988 whilst under the auspices of Estate Wire. Over the next few years, more products were added to the Gripple brand as it was vigorously marketed to the global agricultural fencing, viticulture and fruit tree markets. The product showed real benefits within these market sectors, generating substantial savings in installation time, reduced hand and finger injuries and easier maintenance.

During the course of 1990, the Gripple brand was separated from the Estate Wire fencing brand under its own company name, Gripple Limited. During the 90s and into the 21st century, the company saw other applications for its innovative product and concept. During these two decades, the original idea was being continuously tweaked and developed in a number of ways to create new versions which allowed it to perform as an essential component in new solutions and which have improved best practice and installation efficiencies in a number of new market sectors, most of which were unrelated to the original agricultural application.

Further developments

Seeking innovative solutions was a key driver in forcing the development of a range of products that would secure and operate not only on solid plain wire, but also on multi­filament steel wire rope and strand. Such developments in the 1990s underpinned a major step change in the speed of innovation and offered the company some serious growth opportunities both here in the UK and in a number of prime overseas markets.

Gripple is now the world's leading brand of wire rope hangers in the mechanical, electrical and piping service sector. Significant product development has afforded Gripple the additional opportunities to offer its innovative solution based products to the lighting sector, the acoustic baffle industry, provide a simplified method of installing seismic restraints in earthquake zones and generate significant time savings and installation benefits for the anchoring of geo-synthetic surface matting for land stabilisation.

By the end of 2017, the business had an annual turnover of over £60 million. The business has moved from being a commodity product manufacturer supplying the vast majority of its output to the UK domestic market, to a multinational enterprise some 30 years later.

Sheffield success story

Gripple currently operates across three Sheffield manufacturing sites, sending the majority of their output overseas. The UK is at the centre of the company's structure, employing over 300 staff. Since 1988, maybe the most far-reaching change to the structure of the business has been the introduction of employee ownership on a stakeholder basis. Gripple’s parent company, GLIDE (which stands for Growth Led Innovation Driven Employee), is an employee-owned company that represents all Gripple’s shareholder members who work in its partner companies (including Gripple Automation, PMS, Loadhog, Go Tools and Laser Scanning) and any shareholder in any investee company is automatically a member of GLIDE.

Every employee is required to buy a minimum of £1,000 of shares on the anniversary of their first year of joining the business. This gives everyone ownership rights, which include dividends and the potential for significant increases in the value of their share holding investment. Further rights include having a respected voice and the right to challenge the business, along with the chance to be democratically elected as a representative to the employee GLIDE board, which safeguards and embodies the company’s culture for generations to come.

GLIDE was established to preserve and develop employee culture, to look after the interests of its members and to generate engagement by everyone in the company. In summary, the business is owned by its 700 employees, which becomes evident when walking around the company’s various factories and offices as all the employees clearly enjoy their jobs and are fully engaged in the company’s activities and efforts to succeed. It operates as a multi-national business from fifteen global locations providing solutions across seven different market sectors. The UK factories have the capability to manufacture a core of over 150 products and over 4,500 supplementary products to complete its solution-based product range.

Continued growth

“Gripple was launched to market the product to the agricultural sector for joining fencing, it then progressed into serving vineyards before launching into the construction market in 1997. Today 70 per cent of turnover comes from the construction industry, where Gripple technology is used in combination with wire rope and accessories, in the suspension of mechanical and electrical services in the construction of commercial and industrial buildings,” says Ed Stubbs, managing director of Gripple.

Gripple has also won five Queen’s Awards for Enterprise. Stubbs notes that the company has in fact won in every category, with the 2016 award being its second for international trade. “That award really recognised the global nature of the business now. Today, we are 87 per cent export, selling in over 80 countries. We have small manufacturing operations to service the local markets in Chicago and New Delhi, but all of the Gripple units are manufactured in Sheffield.

“Additionally, we have opened warehousing and offices in Canada and Poland; we have joint venture operations in Portugal, Spain and Italy and long-standing partners in markets such as Japan, Australia and Pacific Asia. We are pushing very hard in Poland and Eastern Europe, in Japan and in Canada – three areas where we are looking to see substantial growth in the short term.”

New Gripple innovations tend to build on the idea behind the original Gripple product – solving a problem with a new, quick and easy solution. “What sets Gripple’s new products apart is they are created based on feedback from our customers and the market, which links to the importance of having Gripple salespeople on the ground around the world,” Stubbs states. “Physically seeing a problem is really important because not only does it help us sell existing products, but it also reveals problems that are only evident if we are there in person. These problems are developed into new products, allowing us to hit new product targets and continue to drive growth.”

Gripple Automation

This innovative and entrepreneurial approach to business runs through the heart of Gripple, and Stubbs and his team are very much looking forward to seeing its continuing expansion. “This is especially true for our spin-off Gripple Automation (www.grippleautomation.com), which is still a new venture in terms of supplying external customers, but we think has massive potential. Based on the feedback I’ve had, Gripple Automation could become the leading automation machine building company in the UK of which there are currently relatively few, that would be great to see.”

The Sheffield-based company expects this £2m investment to create an additional 30 jobs at its new site over the next five years and boost the city’s industrial credentials as an industry leader in machine building.

Gripple Automation was founded in 2012 and initially designed and built bespoke automated production and processing solutions for Gripple and its sister companies. It was set up with seven employees but quickly grew its base of engineering expertise and currently employs over 20 people.

An influx of orders from customers beyond the Gripple group has meant the fledgling company has outgrown its current home on the site of Loadhog, Gripple’s sister company which manufactures returnable transit packaging business, on Hawke Street in Sheffield.

Managing director of Gripple Automation, Darren Beardsmore, explains: “Since its formation seven years ago, Gripple Automation has exceeded expectations. It has gone from filling orders for use within Gripple to creating precision automated machines for the automotive, industrial, food, assembly and packaging industries.

“We’re looking forward to a very busy and successful future as this investment allows Gripple Automation’s growth to continue but we also expect it to be a catalyst for further redevelopment in the area.” 

Work has already begun on the 18,000sq ft site and the new facility, which will be equipped with the latest machine-building technology, a computer numerical control (CNC) machine shop, and rapid prototyping capabilities, is due to open in Spring 2020.

Prior to this, Gripple’s newest site was in Attercliffe, a £2m factory which was extended in 2017 and is capable of producing 55 million Gripple wire joiners annually. The building has 7,000 sq ft more production space than the original and has been dubbed a ‘cathedral of manufacturing’ thanks to its unusual stained glass colour windows. Designed to establish a pleasant workplace, the building is also one of the ‘greenest’. Environmentally friendly features of the facility include its 40 solar panels, used to heat water drawn from the river Don, and an internal green wall of plants fed using the waste from koi carp. It’s an extremely interesting and unusual space, unlike any other factory I’ve ever been to.

Hugh is honoured

Due to the success of Gripple, and in recognition of his services to manufacturing, innovation, exports and employee ownership, Hugh Facey, received perhaps the greatest award of his career when he was named in the Queen’s 2018 new year’s honours list and received an OBE.

In response to the honours mention, Facey recorded an emotional message of thanks to his employees, in which he said: “This is incredible news and a great honour. I have been thinking about what OBE means [personally], as well as officially. I concluded that I received it because of you, our brilliant employees, to thank you for what you do day-in day-out to create wonderful companies. Pride may be a sin, but you make me proud of what you do and what you will continue to do.”

Future opportunities

This year Gripple, has cemented its position as a global player with the opening of its latest office in Japan. Takahiro Makino has been appointed as managing director to oversee Gripple Japan leading the company’s expansion in the Japanese construction market. The move comes as Gripple eyes opportunities arising from the country hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympic Games in 2020.

Takahiro, who joins the company following ten years at one of Japan’s largest suppliers to the construction industry, says: “There is huge potential for Gripple in my country and we’re opening the office at a very exciting time for Japan.

“The opportunities for the construction industry and its suppliers are boundless with so many game-changing projects underway. I expect that we’ll be very busy over the coming years!”

Takahiro will be will be charged with developing the Gripple brand and establishing a thriving business in the world’s third largest economy.

Innovation has been at the heart of Gripple since its beginnings in 1988. The company aims to deliver 25 per cent of its turnover every year from products less than four years old, and as such there’s a culture engrained in the organisation to constantly search for new ways of doing things and better ways to serve its customers. Gripple is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, in which it will achieve the sale of its 800 millionth unit. Innovation, continuous improvement and investment in the business and its employees remains as strong as ever and will be key to the manufacturer’s future growth.

Touring the various Gripple sites around Sheffield was certainly an eye opener and a great way to learn more about this fascinating company, which has become a major UK manufacturing success story. I’d like to thank the entire Gripple team for taking the time to show me around and I look forward to seeing how the company develops over the next few years, when the entire manufacturing industry is likely to face some serious challenges, but for which Gripple seems well placed to overcome.

To learn more about Gripple, visit the company’s website at www.gripple.com

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