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The inventor who built an empire

Englishman Hugh Facey’s rapidly-expanding business is based on a simple but brilliant invention, and successfully challenges many of the accepted conventions of modern management.
Author :
Fiona Rom

Following a conversation with a farmer on a wet Welsh hillside in 1986 about how difficult it was to join two pieces of fencing wire together securely, Facey came up with what he called a Gripple – a little metal box with two holes at each end, through which two pieces of wire could be threaded in opposite directions and locked together by their own tension. In 1989, to manufacture the device, he set up his own business in his home county of Yorkshire in England.

The Gripple revolutionised the fencing industry around the world, and over the next few years Facey’s company established bases in America, Asia and Europe. Facey came up with ideas for applications for the device in the construction industry, and the business expanded further.

But Facey knew that a business founded on an invention is only secure from competitors for as long as its patent protection lasts – in his case, twenty years. With this in mind, he set up an ideas and innovation department in 2000, ensuring that at least a quarter of sales come from products less than four years old. The company spends five per cent of its turnover on innovation and employs a dozen engineers to pursue new ideas.

“Good business is about investing in ideas, not staring at the bottom line,” Facey tells dailymail.co.uk. “You’ve just got to keep pushing out new ideas and invest in the good ones.”

Contrary to traditional business practice, accountants are barred from all key company decisions, as Facey believes they throttle innovation. “If you’re running a cricket team, you send in a batsman to bat and a bowler to bowl. You don’t send in the scorer,” he says. “Accountants are great at keeping the books, but don’t let them run the business.”

He also doesn’t have a human resources department, a health and safety committee, or a bonus system. Every employee is obliged to buy shares in the business, there is no union representation, and retirement is optional.

And, unlike many entrepreneurs, Facey doesn’t plan either to hand his empire on to his children or to sell it to the highest bidder. “Money doesn’t bother me,” he says. “The less I worry about money, the more money I make.” 

Instead, he’s devised a complicated scheme to ensure that most of the multi-million- dollar business goes to his 350 employees, with the provision that they can never sell out to competitors or investors. Over the next ten years he will hand over half of his shares to the new company and the staff will elect the directors, leaving the balance of control in the hands of a Facey family foundation.

No doubt, like the rest of Facey’s innovations, the process will result in benefits for all concerned.
For further information, visit www.gripple.com

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