Posted on 11 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

The products may be bolted to the ceiling but Gripple’s profits are well and truly through the roof thanks to a joined-up manufacturing success story

Gripple is the Sheffield-based manufacturer of original in-designed and patented wire-joiners. Operating in over 75 countries across the globe, the company has a turnover of circa £25 million – a figure that has rocketed 20 per cent in little under two years since it took The Manufacturer of the Year title at the annual Manufacturer LIVE exhibition and awards event, back in 2006.

A year later it was made National Winner for Achievement in International Business by the British Chamber of Commerce, and this year a Queen’s Award for Enterprise – again for its efforts on the international business front – was added to the honour-roll.

Along with the joiners, collectively called ‘Gripples’, the company’s 500-strong product portfolio offers tensioning tools, rope grips, hangers and post-anchoring kits. The company focuses on marketing its wares across three key sectors: agriculture, construction and gardening.

Gripple still manufactures most of its products in Sheffield, where it employs well in excess of over 200 staff. It has now sold around 200 million products globally and even has its logo plastered across the shirts of a league-winning football team, albeit an under-14 girl’s football team in the German town of Teningen, south-west of the country near Freiberg.

In 2004 Gripple launched a subsidiary company called Loadhog, which makes lids for securing goods onto standardsized UK and European pallets, eliminating the need for shrink wrap. Also based in Sheffield, the sister company’s stock is rising steadily as its innovative technology begins to make waves across warehouses around the world.

So what have been the key factors in this company’s continued success?

What is now Gripple began in 1984 when founder and chairman Hugh Facey developed a new technology that was to form the basic principle for ‘Gripples’. The first ‘Gripple’ was made commercially available in 1988. Earlier this year three of the main players present from those early days bowed out of the company, all with over 20 years of service for Gripple under their belt. And there-in lays a long-noted ingredient for achievement – consistency.

Another ingredient is innovation. In managing director Mark Edmond’s own words: “Gripple is founded on defying convention. This philosophy, which also encompasses a commitment to people, excellence, partnership and community, combined with our ability to communicate in 14 of the world’s most commonly used languages, has not only enabled us to compete with foreign competitors but also to leave them standing!”

So what actually are Gripple’s and what do they do? The short answer is they join and tension wire. But they are distinctive in their ease of use. Firms across the globe have testified to the time and money they save and heightened level of safety they bring.

The joiner ‘Gripples’, for connecting fencing and trellising wires, come in a range from small to jumbo, supporting working-load weights from 300 to 600 kilogrammes, and are suitable for use with mild, high tensile and stainless steel.

In its agricultural range, the Gripple T-clip is touted by the company as ideal for quickly erecting stock netting. It is used to tie-off the loose ends of wire at either end of a fence through a ‘twist and push’ system, with no need for the cutting of wires.

The same time and cost efficiencies and added safety have been reported for the hangers they manufacture too. Gripple Hangers are used for mechanical and electrical goods and almost anything else that needs suspending securely from ceilings. They feature a length of steel wire rope, a patented self-locking device to adjust the free end, a setting key and a choice of end fixings.

As per the current climate of the industry, like most manufacturers that sell abroad, exports are a vitally important revenue stream for Gripple. Around 90 per cent of its products are shipped overseas. The company’s strategy in this respect is to employ a savvy selection process when choosing its partnering distributors. “Our policy is to build prime partnerships with companies who already have a distribution network and who can successfully get our product to market,” said Facey. If you have cutting-edge technology that makes you uniquely valuable to partners they have to have put in some hard work and offer something back to deserve to share in your success.

The firm has particularly strong market standing in Australia as well as North and South America. But David Farrell, head of European exports, is on record saying Germany was “the hardest nut to crack.” And industrial Germany just happens to be one of the key markets for wire joiners.

The answer, as with any region, was a delicately forged partnership with the leading importer and distributor in the country. But this time Gripple had to relax its own rule of avoiding exclusive contracts. Flexibility was the key to the deal, in a market that has been touted as having the potential to triple the firm’s turnover in a matter of years. The aforementioned sponsorship of the girl’s junior football squad may have helped relations too.

One of the key factors in Gripple’s recent success has been the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system it employs. Supplied by Exel Computer Systems, the EFACS system, which has profited from continued modification and development over the last 20 years, was first employed by Gripple to handle its business facilities arrangement in the mid-nineties. However, it was not until around four years ago and with the introduction of IT manager Andrew Baxter that the company realised the full potential of the system and began to reap maximum benefit.

“When I arrived I was tasked with reviewing our IT and, having seen EFACS fully implemented elsewhere, I decided we should keep the system and make it work harder for us,” Baxter explained. “The functionality we needed was already there in the system but, like many manufacturers, we simply hadn’t used the system to its full potential.”

With Gripple expanding its operations considerably at the time, Baxter identified a need for “tighter control” of its production and finances. He undertook to seek a specific barcoding system to suit the company’s negotiated needs and commissioned Exel with its creation.

“The system met our past needs, which were simple in terms of IT, but we were growing and needed to have a more sophisticated approach.

“That was an important factor in deciding to invest further in EFACS. We can implement it to work exactly how we want; we don’t have to change our working methods at all,” he said.

Having developed and implemented the optimal system, the other necessary step was to ensure staff understanding and proficiency in its use was also up to the highest, and therefore most efficient, standard possible. “I wanted every single person to at least have an overview of the system, with a more concentrated training programme for the majority of shopfloor workers,” said Baxter.

With a similar mind-set to that just described, another contribution to the maintained rising stock of the firm is the holistic approach Gripple has adopted towards lean. “Lean has had an effect on everything. It stands traditional thinking on its head and makes you look at things in a completely different way. Everyone and everything is affected,” said engineering director, John Joyce.

Dawn Gibbons MBE – chairperson of Flowcrete, the company that installed a new floor at the Sheffield factory – labelled Gripple as a “textbook example of how 5S can help a business achieve greater success.”

She said lean initiatives such as those demonstrated at the site “ultimately create a happier, healthier team and improve productivity and profits.”

Employees make up a substantial proportion of Gripple’s shareholders, though the shares are not awarded for free as part of an incentive package, instead employees are encouraged to buy them. So much so, in fact, that the firm offers its staff a loan of up to £10,000 for that purpose. Repayments are deducted directly through monthly wages with a commercial rate of interest attached.

The rationale for the initiative is that, on top of salaries, the staff reap the rewards of their own efforts. “It demonstrates that they believe in themselves as well as the company, and it really does give us a substantial competitive advantage,” says Hugh Facey. It is also a valuable push towards corporate social responsibility in that protecting the interests of staff and shareholders is made easier as they are, to a substantial extent, one and the same.

The firm maintains that its hangers are also a ‘greener’ option than traditional mechanical and electrical suspension devices. It points to independent research which suggests the carbon footprint involved in manufacturing alternatives like steel chains is 17 times as high as that of producing the wirebased hangers.

It seems that Gripple is most certainly an example of a company with all the right wires connected in all the right places.