Innovation? Forget Silicone Valley USA: Think Sheffield, UK!

Anyone who’s been in sales going back a number of years will be familiar with the oft used scenario of selling widgets in training videos. And we trainee sales people always thought: “How boring!”

Imagine then how intrigued I was to read recently about how a Yorkshire man’s widget has become a (somewhat sexy, even) global brand!

How it started

The man in question is Hugh Facey who, as the story goes, was a successful salesman for a wire company back in the 1980s. A farmer challenged him that surely there was a quicker and more efficient way to attach two bits of wire together than was currently practised – grappling around with a pair of pliers and knots? Now I haven’t spoken to the entrepreneur so I don’t know whether it was a genuine desire to solve a perennial and time consuming task that faced many of his customers that spurred him
on to invent the simple yet brilliant Gripple (the size of a matchbox), but by 1989 he’d come up with the idea and set up his own company to make it.

Now think a bit wider about the applications: Wine and fruit industries rely on trellises to hold up their crops and the Gripple offered a way to repair and even construct wire fencing in a fraction of the time, saving thousands of labour hours. Gripple won the Grand Prix du President (highest accolade of France’s design contest, the Concours Lepine), in 1990. And joined the elite ranks of inventions such as the contact lens, and the ballpoint pen… The Prince of Wales Award for Innovation came the following year.

Gripple Europe was established in 2000 and Gripple Inc the following year

And the (not-so-humble) widget was just the start!

Hugh realised there were so far untapped applications for the Gripple in the construction industry – and his systems of wires and Gripples are now used for lighting for example instead of beams for buildings in earthquake zones. Loadhog, a sister company has been established to provide better distribution solutions… And now, at a time when many business owners would love to be taking things a bit easier, Hugh’s company has expanded to three factories and he is insistent that at least a quarter of sales come from products less than four years old.

Innovation, innovation, innovation!

The company has won the Queen’s Award for Eneterprise in every category at least once.

There is an Ideas and Innovation Centre in the newest factory, and the company employs a dozen engineers to use their imagination and push the boundaries. They have twelve police forces looking at an new system for taking forensic moulds of footprints – it takes 5 minutes instead of half an hour and is more accurate…

Forget PC: Think Commonsense and Community!

No accountants run Mr F’s business and there is no personnel department. All staff currently have to buy at least a £1,000 of shares by the end of their first year of employment and the long term plan is to make the business employee-owned, limited by guarantee.

The company has managed to maximise its energy efficiency, decrease electricity use, reduce landfill/incinerated waste, increase recycling, conserve our use of raw materials, and minimise packaging.

Each year it donates a percentage of its profits to charity as well as dreaming up and participating in fundraising events. Take a look at their 2011 newsletter for inspiration, though I personally think the two jailbreak winners – who blagged their way from Sheffield to Marmaris in Turkey within 48 hours and without spending a bean get my vote!

This isn’t an advertisement for a company. It’s an inspirational story that shows an example of manufacturing that’s alive and well in a corner of Sheffield and can be profitable and sexy when approached with an open and enquiring mind and not attached to a “that’s the way it’s always been done” attitude!

What could you learn from this guy and how could you apply it to your thinking and your company?

Sources:
The Gripple and Loadhog web sites
Robert Hardman’s great article in the Daily Mail

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