CEO Interview: Nick Grey, Gtech
- Credit: Archant
He quit his job with a few thousand pounds in savings and an empty garage. In less than a year, Nick Grey’s technology company Gtech was flying. Tanya Gledhill meets him
Much has been written in the press of late about Nick Grey, the multi-millionaire founder of cordless vacuum giant Gtech.
He was 45th in the 2017 Sunday Times Rich List with £95m in the bank, thanks to the stratospheric performance of the company he still owns with his wife, Louise.
But to fixate on that would be to do the father-of-four a disservice, because that really isn’t what drives him at all.
What gets him up in the morning is designing and manufacturing brilliant products - finding innovative solutions, simplifying operations, making things, well, just better.
That, and looking after Gtech’s enormous customer base who, to date, have bought 22m of his floor care and garden machinery products, and now are snapping up an impressive new range of electric city and mountain bikes.
Nick - like many entrepreneurs - wasn’t exactly captivated by school life.
After a spell living in Roscommon, Ireland between the ages of seven and 10 - a chapter he recalls fondly as his “formative years” - he attended Tenbury High in Worcestershire.
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From there, he reluctantly went to college, leaving with just one A-level in engineering.
But what Nick lacked in enthusiasm for school work, he made up for in grit and a formidable work ethic.
His first job was as a £60-a-week window fitter, but he figured it would be chilly in the winter so persuaded one of his window customers, who made wheelchairs, to give him a job.
From there, he joined the technical team at Vax - the rival he still has a soft spot for - on an £8,000 salary. He thought he’d hit the jackpot.
“I supposed I’d always thought I’d run my own business,” says Nick.
“My dad had an investment casting company and so I knew it was hard running a business. He was often very stressed. So I suppose I had this dream of running a business, but not to be as stressed.”
He laughs as he says this - having had to defend the company against a writ from rival Dyson this summer over its advertising claims. Which, presumably, was fairly high in the stress stakes.
But nothing seems to phase him. Nick is warm, genial, disarmingly self-effacing.
One of seven children, he says he’s used to making himself heard.
“At school I didn’t get on that great,” he says. “I always wanted to do things differently, to do things my way.
“And that meant that when I came out into the world I’d lost confidence. But the job at Vax suited me down to the ground. I didn’t know I wanted to be a product designer, but it really chimed with me and I got on well there. But the higher I climbed the ladder I found the less design work I was doing.”
The seed for Gtech - though he didn’t know then he’d call his company that - was sown many years before he famously quit his job as Vax’s Head of Product Design with £18,000 in savings, an empty garage and a hunger for success.
“I couldn’t wait to get started,” he says. “Was I worried? No, not really. I knew people loved my products and I always believed that if I put a lot of effort into it and watched it carefully, it would work.”
In 2001, he gave himself 18 months to make Gtech fly - his only security being two rental properties he owned - and figured if it didn’t, he’d get a job.
But his big break came quickly, and he’s never looked back.
At the time, many established manufacturers were making the transition to production in the Far East, and Nick planned to follow suit.
It was, back then, a relatively quick process from design through to manufacture.
He had designed Gtech’s first product, the SW01 cordless floor sweeper, at home and needed a $60,000 investment for injection moulding tools to send it into production.
Shark, a US group, offered Nick the funding in exchange for a 10-year licence to market the product.
Immediately, sales began to soar - though he admits, if he had his time again, he’d limit it to a two or three-year partnership. It was, he says with the benefit of hindsight, far too long to be tied in.
The following year, 2003, saw the development of the Gtech fan - and by that point, turnover had hit £2m and another partnership wth Vileda saw Gtech expand into Eastern and Southern Europe.
By the time Nick launched his range of garden power tools - which sold out immediately thanks to a deal with B&Q - turnover was at £6m. By 2008, it had hit double-digits and it has continued to rocket ever since. It’s now in excess of £120m.
Not bad for a dream in a draughty garage.
One of Nick’s biggest wins came in 2012 with the launch of the AirRam - still Gtech’s biggest seller.
Parents and pet-lovers, impressed with the longevity of its market-leading cleaning cycle, bought, and are still buying, them in their thousands.
Success had come so quickly that the company had to put the brakes on its export markets to keep pace with existing demand.
Then, a Taiwanese tourist Kevin Quo arrived at Gtech’s headquarters. He announced he wanted to distribute Gtech’s products in the Far East.
“He just walked in to the Brindley Road shop, totally out of the blue,” says Nick. “He’d been staying in London and made the journey to Worcester because he’d heard about us and thought Gtech products were amazing.
“He sent one of our cordless vacuums to a blogger he was working with, who vacuumed his mattress with it and told the world they should be vacuuming their mattresses with it. And it basically went viral.
“It really was a dance in the hallway moment. In all honesty, Gtech’s success is still a bit of a shock.”
Thanks to this “happy accident”, sales in the region rocketed by 250%, prompting Nick to look for a Japanese distributor.
Growth just keeps on coming.
So how does he, in a market crowded with the likes of Dyson and Shark and Vax and others, continue to innovate, continue to stay ahead of the game?
“There’s a saying,” says Nick. “That success is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. As a consumer, I look at products and see if I can improve them.
“I ask myself, is there a common sense solution to a problem? There usually is. And we can usually do something with that.”
This approach led Nick to develop Gtech’s range of electric bikes, the first launched last year.
Though he’s a champion of Worcester and Worcestershire - he applauds the support Gtech has received from the council and is proud that the majority of his staff come from the local area - the growing weight of traffic has long been a frustration.
And so he did what he does with every problem: turned it into an opportunity.
“The amount of traffic in Worcester has just gone past the point,” he says, echoing what everyone who regularly battles through the gridlocked city thinks.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. How can it be so clogged up with cars when we’ve got so many cycle paths and canals?
“You can get around Worcester really well on a bike, but no one wants to arrive at work all sweaty.
“So what’s the solution?”
In his quest to avoid the daily queues from his home just outside Droitwich to the factory, Nick tried riding several electric bikes, all with one common flaw.
“They’re all so complicated,” he laughs. “One I tried had 170 different settings. 170. It’s ridiculous. It had five power settings, 17 gears...and all I used was one setting.
“That’s all you need. One setting. It’s all about simplicity.”
Hot on the heels of the City Hybrid e-Bike - which received rave reviews in the press - came the Sport version, and most recently the eScent Mountain eBike.
It allows him, he says, to ride up the Malvern Hills without having a heart attack.
But, though he’s proud of the range, it won’t ever be Gtech’s core business - the margins simply aren’t there and, as he says, die-hard mountain bikers like complications.
On the horizon are a host of new products, none of which he can talk about yet.
Among them is a new generation vacuum cleaner which he says will be “easier to live with, simpler to maintain and cleaner to use” and a top-secret departure into a whole new product area.
But for all Gtech’s eye-watering growth, it’s still Nick’s baby.
“I still get all the emails,” he says. “I’m still obsessing about the problems.
“When I get a complaint from a customer saying their delivery hasn’t arrived, or they don’t like something about the product, I take it very personally.
“Gtech works because we love design and we love getting customer service right. When we don’t, it hurts.”
Father to 12-year-old Daisy and three sons, the youngest aged just four, Nick turned 50 in July.
Did he have a big party, I ask him? He didn’t. In typical, understated, Nick style, he celebrated with a family gathering.
His is not a starry life, he insists. He holidays in north Devon, spends his down-time playing Fortnite with the kids and loves gardening and hanging out with the family.
Every other year, he meets up with his siblings and their children for a big holiday. There can be upwards of 40 of them, and it’s something Nick treasures.
His great passion is surfing.
On his bucket list is riding the waves in Puerto Rico, though he admits surfing on Malibu Beach while Gtech was filming a TV commercial in LA was pretty cool.
He claims he’s not very good at it. The guys in the surf shop, his PA is at pains to point out, thought differently.
“Ah,” he says. “They were being kind. But I do love it. And of course that’s the only trouble with Worcester. It’s about three hours from the beach. But it’s home. It always has been.”