Getting to grips with Gripple – A unique manufacturer

Posted on 16 Jun 2022 by Tom St John

Sheffield based Gripple, a manufacturer of wire joiners and tension systems for agriculture, and suspension solutions for construction were named as The Manufacturer MX Winners for 2021 in the category of Leadership & Strategy. The Manufacturer’s Tom St John, went to visit this unique manufacturer, that put its people at the heart of everything.

Perhaps it’s due to my untrained eye, but I’m not instantly blown away by what Gripple manufactures. Walking through its excellent facilities, I see long reels of suspension wire and large vats of small metallic bolts, used for various wire connectors and tensioning tools. I later find out, that Gripple has made its mark everywhere – if you look up in any industrial or commercial building across the world, you’re likely to see heating, lighting and ventilation units suspended by Gripple products. The company has sold around one billion products globally in the last 30 years. What has helped this manufacturer achieve such a feat, is its company ethos.

Employee Ownership

Gordon Macrae, Special Projects Manager at Gripple, comes to meet me at the door of GLIDE House, which is Gripple’s Learning and Development Centre – this is where the tour begins. GLIDE House boasts a decent sized social space with seating areas and tables for employees to grab a bite to eat, finished nicely with a pool table, dart board and a bar which runs the length of the room. The ground floor of GLIDE House rather embodies Gripple as a business. It’s informal – laid back almost. It’s impressive but not flashy, welcoming but not overbearing.

Glide House is an area for Gripple employees to socialise
Glide House is an area for Gripple employees to socialise

Gripple is an entirely employee-owned company – it’s been that way since 2011, when the employee-ownership model GLIDE was established. This informs everything – it means that every employee has a vested interest in the business and plays a significant part in its growth. The Founder of Gripple, Hugh Facey OBE, who I didn’t meet on my trip, but is quoted to have once said: “Look after the people and the business will look after itself.”

Gordon sits down with me, and we discuss Gripple’s TMMX win back in November of last year. He’s a strong advocate for the awards and has actually been part of the judging process in previous years. When asked about the reasons for Gripple’s recognition, he replies, “I think we’ve got a great strategy,” he explains. “It’s embedded on core foundations of innovation, leadership, environment and people and culture. We’ve got a strategy for developing and implementing this culture which is quite different to other businesses.”


Embedding the culture

To fully understand how this is demonstrated, I’m taken upstairs to meet Katrina Richie, People and Culture Director and Marcie Rowbotham, Head of Learning and Development. Both are a little nervous at first to have a camera trained on them, but once I hand them a microphone each and hit the record button, they’re away – proud and eager as anything to tell me about the culture of their company.

“The company values drive the culture,” says Katrina. “At Gripple, we’re unpicking the culture by saying, this is what people will do, this is what we’ll hear people say and this is how people will operate. It’s really taking things back down to basics, but it’s not easy. I’ve come across many businesses who talk about having a great culture – then you go to visit, and they can’t describe what it is. Here, and you’ll see this when you visit the factories, you can feel the culture.”

The Gripple team enjoying their TMMX win back in November
The Gripple team enjoying their TMMX win back in November

“We embed the culture at every level,” explains Marcie. “With this flat structure that we have, people are able to challenge and to approach others who aren’t embodying those values. We have a set of behaviours that we expect others to adopt and when they don’t, everybody is able to challenge at all levels. If we see someone not attesting to the expected quality, we can say, ‘oi -that’s not on!’ Everybody is able to challenge.

“Those values aren’t just something that we trot out at an annual convention,” Marcie continues. “They’re everywhere, plastered on every wall at every site. Everybody is able to challenge and understand what these values look like in practice.”

Pulling together through adversity

Whenever we, at The Manufacturer, ask businesses about recent challenges, COVID is often cited as a problem. During COVID, Gripple actually had its most successful year in terms of sales and productivity. Unsurprisingly, its people were well looked after during that time, as Kat explains. “We shielded vulnerable people immediately. Our employees were paid in full. I visited doorsteps with my MD to deliver hampers to employees. We got people shopping vouchers.

“In terms of the factories, we put in lots of measures, we even had some fun t-shirts saying ‘wash your hands you filthy bugger!’ Kat pauses and looks at me – “Am I allowed to say that….? You’re in Yorkshire now, so there you go.

“It’s made us think about our future strategies,” continues Kat, as the laughing subsides. “One thing we’re looking at is improving people’s work life balance. I’m very passionate about us trying to implement a four-day working week, but that’s hard to do in manufacturing. That’s going to take investment, it’s going to take the right type of people in leadership to deliver those strategies.

“We’re also very passionate about bringing people back into the office, we’ve gone against the trend of hybrid working. It just simply doesn’t work for a company like us, because we’re innovative, we get our ideas from our people, we want people to be collaborative. If someone is better off working from home on a certain project, then fine, but the default position is to have everybody back in. We have a laugh! We have ice creams, we’ve got a kitchen and a bar, we do loads of stuff. Why work at home when you can come and work with your friends?”

A Gripple factory worker

Gordon, who has been sitting quietly in the room with us, chimes in with, “I think the challenge for us has been maintaining the culture. We’re a growing business, and as you grow you employ more people. The real trick is to find people that buy into your culture, and to live it on a day-to-day basis. As we become more global, we have got just over 900 people around the world operating out of 12 countries, people interpret the culture slightly differently. Maintaining that consistency of culture, right across the world, has been our biggest challenge.”

“We recruit based on a person’s values,” adds Kat. “You could have somebody with the best experience and qualifications, but if they’re not going fit the business, then they’re not going to work at Gripple. It starts by bringing in the right people who’ve got the shared values.”

This simplifies the working landscape at Gripple. The seemingly complex and hugely important elements of the business are dumbed down by a strategy that allows people to shine in an area they’re interested in.

“Our sustainability strategy was written by a junior member of staff,” says Gordon. “They’re passionate about sustainability, so we supported them and worked with them to implement their ideas.

“Digitalisation? We’ve had a handle on that for years – it’s second nature to us.” To elaborate on this, Gordon drives me a short distance to the Old West Gun Works site; one of six factory sites that Gripple has in Sheffield.

The right people

A former 1800’s gun factory, Gripple moved into the building following an extensive refurbishment in September 1994. This impressive factory is where I meet Operations Manager James Sallows. When I ask him why the company sees digital as “second nature” and how adoption has been so smooth, it’s no surprise when he answers, “Having people involved at all levels is absolutely crucial. As an employee-owned business we absolutely drive that. If you look across all the factories, we have a heavy reliance on involving people from the ground up and making improvements.

The factory floor at Old West Gun Works
The factory floor at Old West Gun Works

“It’s the people on the shop floor who run those machines, drive all the improvements, and know where the data is coming from – they’re pivotal in getting the right answers. By not taking this approach, you’ll end up encountering difficulties.”

I walk around the factory floor of Old Gun West Works; a few hours previously I’d been taken to see the Riverside Site, and after lunch we visit the site known as Norfolk Bridge Works. As mentioned at the top of this article, the machinery is nifty but nothing being manufactured is capturing my attention particularly. The people however, certainly are. The factory workers, the various departments sitting behind their computers – everyone is going about their day with a smile. Gordon is greeted warmly to each factory and office he walks in to, and he returns that greeting in kind. I walk around the sites, taking video shots on a camera, completely uninhibited by any restrictions or wary looks. “Film wherever you like,” says Gordon. I’m met with a “hello,” every now and again from a Gripple employee – the unmistakable South Yorkshire accent heard clearly in the last vowel. I recall what Kat had said to me back at Glide House: “You can feel the culture.”

Home-grown leaders

Gordon and I chat some more on the way back from the Norfolk Bridge Works site, the last stop of my visit. He talks about the traditional, often quite formulaic route that organisations follow when it comes to running and building factories. It’s at odds with the Gripple strategy, which once again, circles back to people. The growth of the business and its business are one in the same, and because of this approach and the trust placed in employees to become leaders, Gripple do an excellent job at retaining its staff.

Gordon explains: “The fundamental starting point is that we don’t have a vision of a completely optimal factory. As a business, we’re entrepreneurial and we’re innovative. As we grow, we become bigger, we learn and we make the occasional mistake. We end up in a situation where the people that are involved in that process grow with us. And we give them the opportunity in a particular factory to become leaders.

Factory floor at the Norfolk Bridge Works site
The Norfolk Bridge Works site

“If you look around at all our six sites in Sheffield, the vast majority of current leaders started on the shop floor, some of them as apprentices. We grow and develop them -we give them the opportunity to excel as individuals. We’re not pressurising them to run the world’s largest manufacturing plants, it’s all within their competencies and skill set. It makes for a really exciting opportunity for those individuals and for the business.”

It makes me think back to what Marcie had told me earlier in the day: “I was Head of Marketing until about six months ago. While I love Gripple, I’d spent 10 years in construction marketing, I wasn’t as interested as I wanted after that amount of time. The business has supported me to move into a new career path. And we do that at all levels of the business – if someone is a good Gripple person they’ll be supported. We believe skills can be trained; it’s about the person’s in attitude as much as it is their aptitude.”

I shake Gordon by the hand and thank him for a great day, reiterating again my appreciation of being given free rein to film wherever I pleased. As I prepare myself for the long drive back down to London, I think back to some of the people I’ve met during my visit. None of them were given any direction on their answers, nobody asked to check the questions that I’d prepared beforehand. There’s a trust evident throughout Gripple – a trust that its employees will do them proud and represent them in an accurate and affable manner.

This is a truly people-first manufacturer – with a wonderful philosophy and an undeniably unique approach to leadership and strategy. A worthy winner indeed, at last year’s TMMX Awards.

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