Ed Stubbs has worked his way up through Gripple to become the managing director but he is still answerable to his staff, and he is more than happy with that. He spoke to Ismail Mulla.
Running a business comes with a variety of challenges but for Ed Stubbs they’re different to those faced by the majority of firms in this country.
The managing director of Gripple is answerable to his staff as the Sheffield-based manufacturer is 100 per cent employee-owned.
While other bosses may feel under pressure under such circumstances, Mr Stubbs comes across as relaxed.
There’s a good reason for that. Mr Stubbs has himself worked his way up at the business, which has made its name creating wire joining and tensioning products but is now increasingly looking at other innovations in construction related industries.
Mr Stubbs said: “I did my work experience here. I then actually went over to the US to help open our US subsidiary. That was 17 years ago. I enjoyed that very much. I tried to stay but they wouldn’t give me a visa.”
He instead returned to the UK, did some studies and joined Loadhog, a returnable transit packaging business belonging to Gripple.
“I ran Loadhog from 2009 to 2014 and then came back to Gripple as MD at the start of 2015,” Mr Stubbs added.
Gripple has over 700 employees worldwide with around 550 of them based in Sheffield across its various businesses.
The firm, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is heavily reliant on exports with over 87 per cent of sales coming from overseas. There are clocks indicating the various different time zones Gripple operates in at the company’s Sheffield headquarters.
Its two largest overseas subsidiaries are in Chicago and Obernai, near Strasbourg, Mr Stubbs says.
That brings up the inevitable question of Brexit and what the impact of leaving the European Union would be on the business?
“I don’t know. Can you help? I would say ask Theresa May but I don’t think she would be able to help either,” Mr Stubbs says with typical candour.
The positive aspect for Gripple, he adds, is the fact that its products are patented and a “highly unique, added value” proposition.
The managing director added: “The demand for that product will remain the same all around the world in the 85 countries that we sell, regardless of whether we’re in or out of the European Union.
“For us it’s a question of whether it gets more difficult and potentially more costly to service that market.”
Crashing out on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms would see duties added to goods but equally an expected run on the pound could mitigate costs, Mr Stubbs said.
The company also has an operation in Poland, along with joint ventures on Spain, Italy and Portugal, alongside its Obernai base. All of the sites hold stock and have manufacturing capabilities.
“We think we’re pretty well set to cater for whatever may come,” Mr Stubbs said. “Obviously our hope is still that we remain in the European Union and we don’t leave whatsoever. If we do [leave] our hope is we have a free trade deal.”
It’s little wonder that he wants to remain in the EU. Around 40 per cent of Gripple’s turnover comes from Europe. However, it’s about more than just business sense. Mr Stubbs said: “We’re a very proud Yorkshire manufacturer but we are absolutely a global business.
“We have over 250 employees in Europe that are all shareholders of Gripple and we have something like 1,500 customers in Europe.
“I don’t see why Gripple would ever want to leave that club. It’s not just a free trade economic thing. It’s also a culture thing and about how you view yourselves with your customers and your colleagues.”
Prior to Brexit, a key talking point in business was the viability of the capitalistic model. Employee representation on boards and executive pay gaps with other employees were on the agenda.
Mr Stubbs believes that employee ownership provides the answer to many of the issues with capitalism.
Every employee has to buy £1,000 worth of shares within 12 months of being given a job. This means that every employee “has skin in the game” and that the business works for them as well.
“In employee ownership, capital is the servant of the worker,” he said, “whereas in traditional capitalism, workers are the servants of capital.”
Capitalism is under threat, Mr Stubbs says, if it doesn’t reform. He said: “I guess that as a principal model it doesn’t look like it will last for the long term. The Gripple employee ownership model is in my view very capitalistic.
“We’re driven by a target of growing between 10 and 15 per cent a year. We’re driven by the target of 25 per cent of sales having to come from products less than five years old. It requires real aggressive investment to drive that growth continuously.”
Here lies the greatest challenge for Mr Stubbs. He said: “We have a target of 25 per cent of sales having to come from new products. It gets harder and harder because sales are £80m now. This year we were at 18 per cent.
“By 2021 we aim to be at £100m turnover so I need to get £25m in sales from new products, most of which don’t exist today, by 2021.
“By 2021 to hit the new product target we need £25m sales of products less than five years old. Quite a few of the ones that qualify for that target today will drop out between now and 2021.”
The idea behind this is to safeguard the company’s future and hedge against fluctuations in its core markets.
Gripple was built from the ground up by entrepreneur Hugh Facey OBE and a key motivation for transferring ownership to his employees was to pass on the legacy and create a natural succession plan.
“It’s inevitable that the founder’s involvement is going to stop some time,” Mr Stubbs says, “although Hugh tells me he will live forever but other founder’s potentially will stop.” So what is it like working with a charismatic chairman like Mr Facey? “It’s an absolute pleasure,” Mr Stubbs. “Working with Hugh is, as you would probably expect, great fun.
“He’s less involved in the businesses today than he has been historically but I learn a lot and take great enjoyment out of having a good debate with Hugh. Often these days it’s less about business and more about Brexit, Theresa May, and England cricket.”
The dynamic might be different overseeing an employee-owned company but Mr Stubbs is well-placed to continue Gripple’s upward trajectory.
Title: Managing director of Gripple Limited
Date of birth: 16/04/83
Favourite holiday destination: French Alps
Last book read: Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward
Favourite film: Dirty Harry
Favourite song: Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
Car driven: Jaguar F-Pace
Most proud of: a number of current and former colleagues’ success and progression within the GLIDE group of businesses
Education: Birkdale school, Sheffield & Nottingham University Management School