ISSUE 01 | ENTREPRENEUR
Just two ‘O’ levels and no debt: How does empire-builder Nick Grey do it?
Gtech and its cordless products have broken all the rules. And now it’s going global.
By Clare Dowdy | Photography by Trent McMinn
In a slate-grey industrial unit on the outskirts of Worcester, six vacuum cleaners attached to moving bed rigs relentlessly hoover a rectangular piece of carpet back and forth in unison. This is the ‘life test room’ at Gtech, the company that made its name with its AirRam cordless vacuum cleaners.
It is this sort of rigorous testing, combined with an insatiable appetite for innovation, that has given the AirRam – which launched in 2012 – the unofficial number- two spot in its sector in the UK, having sold 899,000 units.
But there is much more to Gtech than a novel twist on vacuum-cleaning. It may not be a household name yet, but the outfit is doing something interesting and – for these times – almost eccentric.
Modern-day entrepreneurs more often than not move in the world of tech. From Amazon and Airbnb, to Uber and Deliveroo, the face of innovation largely comprises a disruptive idea, some ingenious software and an app.
But Gtech’s Nick Grey is an old-school inventor, who at first glance has more in common with wind-up radio’s Trevor Bayliss than Silicon Valley’s living legends. Because Grey has created an impressive business on the back of product design.
The AirRam, Gtech’s best-selling and bestknown product, sits alongside a tranche of other realworld items: handheld vacuum cleaners, cordless gardening equipment and electric bikes.
But rather than sticking these whims up on Kickstarter, Grey has spent the last 16 years building a business from them. Gtech has 180 staff in Worcester, another 25 in China, and a projected turnover £100m for November 2017 (up from £8m in 2012). “Until recently, even if the toilet was blocked up, I would sort it out,” says Grey. He has grown the company without taking on any debt, having left school with ‘O’ levels in Maths and English. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do things (at school), I was just bored.” He later supplemented them with a degree in design and engineering from The Open University.
His job after college, as a lab technician at vacuum cleaner manufacturer Vax, suited him because “they wanted wacky ideas.” He left there as head of product development to create the world’s first cordless power sweeper from his home in Worcestershire.
Grey bounded into the public eye just five years ago, with the launch of the AirRam. Full of nervous energy at the product’s London press launch, he generously (and cleverly) handed out a cordless vacuum cleaner to every journalist there. A few years later, at AirRam Mk2’s press launch, he thanked the journalists for their support – meaning positive reviews – after he pulled AirRam from retailers and sold direct. Gtech’s products are now back with some retailers, but that audacious move helped put Grey on the map. That, and his fronting of Gtech’s commercials – he even made a cameo appearance in the much-watched ad where dancers with AirRams dance to Queen’s “I want to break free”. Like Richard Branson (who cross-dressed to launch Virgin Brides), or Easyjet’s Stelios, or Grey’s rival James Dyson, Grey was following in the footsteps of some of the UK’s best-known entrepreneurs.
Since that first AirRam launch, Grey has matured into a slicker public persona, but that self-assurance doesn’t hide his continued enthusiasm. “At Gtech, we suffer from too many good ideas and not enough time to develop them. We are straining at the leash of creativity,” says Grey, 49, lounging on a sofa in his office. As managing director, he no longer designs products, but he still oozes ideas.
“Sometimes I have a whim,” he says, “like making an electric bike that doesn’t look like an electric bike and is as light as a normal bicycle.”
To manage the constant deluge of novel ideas, in autumn 2016, Gtech vacated the farm buildings it had outgrown into a 3,300 sq m facility on a business park. It houses an R&D department four times the size of the previous space, a customer services centre, showroom and a short outdoor cycle track for customers to try out those eBikes.
But even here, the 60-strong R&D department and its 3D printer struggle to keep up. According to technical director Paul Pickford, at any time there are between eight and ten product ideas that they haven’t had a chance to start on yet. “The NPD road map extends out three years.”
Currently, the team is working on eight products. These include two non-floor care robots, which are under wraps until they launch at CES, Las Vegas’ consumer electronics and technology trade fair, in January 2018. “Robots are good at automating boring tasks,” says Grey, “and a new generation of product designers have come along, who tap away on a laptop and programme things. So more and more of our products will have brains in them, in the software.”
And while Grey no longer has a hand in the early design work, “I’m obsessively involved with the combination of how things work and how things look – they have to look nice to hold, and nice to use. I’m sure I drive them (the R&D department) potty sometimes.” Because that can mean myriad iterations before he’s happy with it. “Having a consumer’s view of products is the most fun bit and probably the only bit I’m really good at.” At this, his media consultant, who is present at all times during Furnace’s visit, chuckles to imply this is false modesty.
Every Thursday morning, Grey arrives in the R&D department to run through live projects. To make the grade, they have to tick a handful of boxes: “Could you hypothetically use this product wearing boxing gloves? [for less dextrous customers]. If you sold this product to your grandmother, would you be proud of it? [that covers issues like selling price, performance and ease of use]. And we like things to have one button, and to look like what they are.” It may sound like an inexact science, but these criteria have generally hit the mark with customers. Gtech’s sales have gone up from £65m in 2015 to £91m in 2016, with an operating profit of over £9m last year.
The R&D department is organised into three teams of eight to ten people, with each team handling three projects at once. “It’s very pacey,” says Pickford. That pace is partly to do with Grey’s background as a product designer, as NPD decisions can be made swiftly, Pickford adds. So if a new idea isn’t working out, then there are few qualms about dropping it.
“We’re much braver (than some companies) at making those sorts of decisions,” says Pickford. Such was the fate of a hedge trimmer that was too heavy.
While NPD is carried out in Worcestershire, a team of engineers in China do detailed CAD design. They are based near the five factories subcontracted to make Gtech’s products. As well as being its manufacturing base, China plays a key role in Grey’s ambitious plans for global expansion. “The number one floor care brand, in terms of sales and company size, is far bigger than us,” says Grey, alluding to Dyson. “To compete with them, we need to be international. And yet very few people outside UK in the floor care trade know Gtech.” Hence the launch into China this autumn. The country was chosen in part because of its consumers’ appetite for Western technology, says Grey. He’s also eyeing up Japan and several other markets.
Gtech has already done plenty to shake up the floor care market, but Grey’s work there is not yet done. “They’re still filthy products,” he says, describing how dirt has to be emptied by hand. “It’s back to the industrial revolution of handling products.” So while it might at first seem counter-intuitive to the 21st-century vacuum cleaner user, Gtech is launching a handheld version with a bag to collect the dirt. Whether others in the sector follow suit remains to be seen.
In the meantime, local people come to Gtech’s HQ to take advantage of the smart, well-laid-out showroom. Here they can try out products and take an eBike for a spin. Or they bring their Gtech items back for repair – a sort of provincial Genius Bar. At lunchtime, Gtechers leave the business park to nip over the road and pick something up from the small Tesco that stands in an uninspiring row of shops. It may not be Silicon Valley, but even so, the ideas keep on coming. Because Grey has proven that, wherever you’re based, having lots of ideas, a background in product design, and a head for figures can be a winning combination.