FEBE meets the entrepreneur who:

  • Built a £100m company that can never be sold
  • Encouraged his staff to invest in their business
  • Made it illegal for accountants to take control

In June 2018, Yorkshire entrepreneur Hugh Facey was at Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE. The businessman absorbed the serene, dignified ambience and watched as the Prince of Wales attached a ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ badge to Monty Don’s lapel. Next to receive his OBE was boxer Anthony Joshua. Then, up strode Hugh. The Royal smiled and politely offered: “So Mr Facey. You’re in manufacturing?”

“Yes, sir,” replied the entrepreneur.

“What do you make?”


“Fantastic Gripple products, I see them everywhere. Brilliant. Wonderful. Well done,” said Charles. “And where’s your factory?”

“It’s in Sheffield, and you opened it SIR!” grinned the Sheffielder.

As the future King’s smile turned to laughter, he scoured his memory for the moment in 1994 that he’d cut the ribbon of Gripple HQ in Sheffield, later describing it as “one of the finest refurbishments of a listed building I’ve ever seen”.

The Facey Way

Fast forward to today, and FEBE is in that same building – The Old West Gun Works in Sheffield. We’re chatting with Hugh, 77 but still full of Yorkshire grit and working daily. Gripple – founded in 1989 to make wire-connecting products – now turns over more than £100m and employs 850 people globally. And his newer business, Loadhog – manufacturer of reusable, eco-friendly packing equipment – entered the FEBE Growth 100 last year with sales of £29m.

But we’re not here to look at the products, ingenious as they are. Instead, we’ve come to discover what drives that success; to be schooled in the ‘The Facey Way’. Because Hugh is an entrepreneur of such singularity that he’s become a national treasure, as his OBE suggests.

“Equality and no secrecy”

The anecdote above offers a clear insight into his character. “It’s simple,” says Hugh. “Everybody’s equal. We’re all part of the same family. The King’s the same as me. The cleaners here are the same as me. We’re no different. That’s how I run this business.”

And he puts his money where his mouth is. Equality permeates every aspect of life at Gripple and Loadhog. The boardroom is in the middle of the factory floor, and everyone, from cleaners to directors, sees the sales figures daily. “There’s none of that bloody secrecy round here,” says Gripple’s founder.

But that’s not all. Hugh hasn’t just created a culture of openness and equality but he has built his company on those ideals: he’s literally transformed the business into Gripple’s employee-ownership scheme. More on that later…


It all started at Sheffield Poly, now Hallam Uni, in the early 1960s, when Hugh took a Business Studies HND. “It was a ‘thick sandwich’ HND,” he says,” so called because you spent two years at college and one year in industry.”

Hugh joined Tinsley Wire in Sheffield – located where a giant IKEA now stands. The now-defunct company’s management (“it eventually got taken over by vulture capitalists – bloody awful people,” says Hugh) soon realised that their thick-sandwich graduate had a decent loaf. First, Hugh won a prize that saw him travel overseas to work for a wire company in Canada; then, when he returned aged 24, he was put in charge of the Sheffield sales office.

Two years later, Gripple’s future founder was sent to run a Tinsley factory in Spennymoor, County Durham, which was faring poorly. He turned it around rapidly, recruiting a new salesforce, developing the product range and entering new markets. Five years later, aged 31, he was back in Sheffield, married and promoted to group sales and marketing director.

Breaking free

As sales director, Hugh proposed a significant change. He wanted Tinsley to reduce its reliance on its five leading distributors who “weren’t doing anything except taking a cut”. But the board wouldn’t budge.

In response, Hugh set up his own business – Estate Wire – and went into competition with Tinsley in 1984.

“My decision was not well-liked,” he says understatedly. “The MD sent a chauffeur to pick me up. In his office, he asked: ‘Didn’t you think you could run this business one day?’ I told him I probably could, but not as well as you and I’d run it differently. He said: ‘Well, I think you should have stayed. But now we’ll make sure you fail.’ Fair enough, I thought, bring it on.”

An unpromising situation

However, the new entrepreneur had no factory, nada wire-making machines and zero customers. Seeing this gloomy scenario as a mild problem waiting to be solved, he convinced a Halifax-based company to back Estate Wire 50:50. Together, they bought a factory at Sheffield’s Manor Top and shipped in machines from Germany and raw materials from South Africa and Europe. In six weeks, Hugh bagged his first customer and never looked back.

Enter Gripple

Estate Wire grew to £5m and, in 1986, begot Gripple. The Eureka moment came on a windy Welsh hill. Hugh says: “I was talking to our sales agent in Wales. On his farm he demonstrated how farmers must tie knots in the wires fences to connect them. That led to an idea: could we create a product that would grip the wires and add tension? It developed into Gripple.”

Massive growth

It was a big moment. Today, Gripple products connect wires all over the globe, including the world’s longest fence – the 5,624km Dingo Barrier in Australia – and in countless vineyards supporting the vines. Evolutions of the original Gripple product are used ubiquitously too. For example, there are 60,000 Gripple ‘No 2 Hangers’ in Chicago’s Trump Tower and 18,000 Gripple’ Corner Saddles’ in London’s Gherkin building.

But back on that Welsh hill in 1986, global success was years away. First, Hugh and Estate Wire had to develop Gripple, decide how to sell it, buy out the Halifax-based business partners and do countless other things, including entering and winning the BBC’s Tomorrows World Prince of Wales Award for Innovation in 1991.

In the same year, Hugh hived off the business from Estate Wire, creating Gripple Ltd, and in 1994, aged 48, he sold Estate Wire for £1.1m, leaving his focus entirely on Gripple.

The company grew dramatically, and in 2001 Hugh and his team established Gripple Inc in Chicago Gripple SARL in Alsace and two years later, they started Loadhog in Sheffield, UK.


The substance behind the story

So, now that we know the main elements of the Hugh Facey story let’s consider – in the founder’s words – what’s driven the growth. Of course, Yorkshire charisma and grit go a long way, but what sits behind them?

Six Gripple growth drivers 

  1. “Innovate like heck”

Hugh says: “Innovation drives us: we develop new products and get them out there quick. But we don’t just say it; we mean it: 25% of our turnover must come from products we’ve innovated in the last five years.

Loadhog’s currently running at 68%. And you won’t find many manufacturing businesses spending 5% on R&D as we do. Why not? Because accountants run them.”

  1. “Clip your bean counters’ wings”

“By its Articles of Association, Gripple can never be run by an accountant. Why? Because if you’re playing cricket and want to score runs, you put in your best batsman. If you’re going to bowl a team out, you put on your best bowler. The last person you send in to do either is the scorer.

“That’s what accountants do – keep the score. They’re good at measuring how much it costs to do something, but the cheapest thing of all – doing nowt – will undoubtedly end in failure. So I’ve never worried about the financial side of things. We drive the business but we don’t obsess over the figures.”

  1. “Bonuses can bugger off!”

“We don’t have any bonuses. I’ve never believed in them. It’s madness to give bonuses to individuals; it’s bad management because success is down to everybody in the team, not individuals.”

  1. “Get out there, lad!”

“After launching Gripple in the UK, we didn’t waste time before exporting to Australia and South Africa. Those were our first two big international markets, and building our sales there gave us an excellent platform for growth. We now have 14 sites worldwide, including in the US, Canada, India, Japan and Germany.

“Spending six months working in Canada during my early career helped me to think internationally. And so did getting involved with Junior Chamber International, where I was British President in 1989.”

  1. “None of that secrecy”

“We have our board table right here in the middle of the floor so everyone can see it. The reason is that if we’ve had a bad time and someone’s getting a bollocking, it’s not hidden. Equally, everybody can see when we’re all happy. Similarly, everybody in the business sees the sales figures every day. And everybody gets the monthly report. We have no secrecy, total transparency.”

  1. “We’re all equal”

“When I sold Estate Wire, I thought it wasn’t fair to take £1.1m when the staff got nothing. So we did a deal where 10% went to the team who stayed at Estate Wire, and the rest came with me.

“At Gripple Ltd, I wanted the company to be like that from the start, so we offered the new team – 17 of us – the chance to buy £1,000 of shares. Today, anyone who joins the business has to buy £1,000 shares and we offer loans to help them if necessary. 

“Every Gripple shareholder gets one share in Glide [an acronym of ‘Growth Led Innovation Driven Employee Company Limited] – a holding company we set up in 2011 to represent all the employees in its partner companies. I have one share in Glide. Our newest member of staff has one share in Glide. That’s as many as anyone can have.”

“So the business is now employee-owned, and the staff are more committed because they have shares in the business – which can go up or down. That’s real ownership and puts us in a great position to innovate and grow.”

“Glide now has roughly one third of Gripple & Loadhog’s shares has been set up so it can never legally be sold. Also, it can never be run by an accountant. And that’s true – I’m not joking!”

FEBE says…

A different breed

Hugh Facey is not your typical 21st-century entrepreneur. A vicar’s son, who regularly worships at 850-year-old Sheffield’s Beauchief Abbey, he takes his beliefs into business. “I’ve never been in business to make money,” he says. “I started wi’ nowt and I’m goin’ to go out wi’ nowt. Business is no different from life – everybody is equal.”

Some people – particularly accountants (!) – may baulk at his approach. But it’s impossible not to admire his entrepreneurial achievements – especially his ability to turn ideas into reality. How many managers blow hot air about ‘valuing their people’ and ‘equality at work’ without actually doing anything to back it up? At Gripple, those values have become legally embedded in the company structure like steel girders. And the results speak for themselves.

Closing thoughts

We began this article revelling in Hugh’s archetypal ‘Yorkshire’ character: a plain-speaking Sheffielder who sees himself neither below a prince nor higher than a pauper. But we’ll leave you with another, perhaps more telling view of this unique entrepreneur.

As we finish our chat at The Old West Gun Works in Sheffield, Hugh looks towards a colleague – a fellow Glide shareholder. “That lady’s from Ukraine,” he tells us. “And her son is in the army because he has to be, but his wife had a baby. So they all clubbed together, got the wife and child out of Ukraine, and brought them back to Sheffield. They went in and got them out.” And as Hugh speaks, tears well up and his voice cracks, maybe revealing what really drives this entrepreneur – not profit, but a desire to do the right thing and to make a difference. With his company’s pioneering employee-ownership system, he’s undoubtedly bullseying his objectives.


More Facey Wisdom

Nuggets for up-and-coming entrepreneurs…

 “The first thing to do is get experience – I was lucky at Tinsley Wire. It was well run and I learned a lot. So my advice is to get experience before you plough on – that way, you’re learning efficiently rather than learning by constantly tripping over things.”

“Don’t be worried when things go wrong. We all make mistakes; you have to make errors to learn.”

 “In a business, everybody is equal. There isn’t a top-down. Everybody contributes equally. That’s the way to think about it.”

“I have the smallest desk at work, and I’m not called boss. Trust your people. Believe in them.”

Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.