Unfortunately, Covid-19 got in the way so our celebration will be delayed but, when it is safe, we will break out the champagne! We have an incredible story to celebrate.
Inzpire likes to have fun; happiness is imprinted in our DNA. We are not one of those businesses in which the ‘fun police’ stamp on any sign of morale; we like to enjoy ourselves! For our 10th birthday, we took the whole company to Alton Towers for the day, followed by a wonderful gala dinner and party.
Has it really been 15 years since we founded Inzpire with just £300? I remember the original idea for the business coming to us at the famous London Restaurant, Simpsons in The Strand. The three founders - Ian Ansell, Mark Boyes and myself were having lunch together and, over a fine merlot, and some delicious roast beef, we decided to do something slightly crazy: we decided to found a defence business. We took ‘the path less travelled’ and what a difference it has made.
I remember that meal clearly – the way the conversation ebbed and flowed as ideas started to embed themselves in our consciousness. Would it be possible, we wondered, to create an aviation-focussed defence company, with a strongly military ethos, full of outstanding individuals from all the armed services and the defence industry? What if we could create a perfect fusion of deep engineering/scientific expertise with real operational experience – one that allowed us to understand and deliver what military customers actually wanted, for a fair price?
What if we gave our customers more than they expected, and did it with a smile? What if we operated through relationships, not contracts, and simply got ‘stuck in’ with our military colleagues, relying on mutual trust? How could we create a business based around these values, which put employee happiness at the centre and which was a fun place to work? Could we achieve success simply by focussing on delivering excellence? Would it work? Were we crazy to even think that this was possible?
Many said that we were mad, but we took the leap anyway. We endlessly examined the pros and the cons, we did a great deal of scenario planning, and we wracked our brains late into the night thinking of what could go wrong. But, in the end, you either go for such things or you don’t. ‘Do, or do not do’, said Yoda from Star Wars ‘there is no try’. We decided to ‘do’.
So, Mark, Ian and I lent the company quite a lot of our own money and off we set, full of nervous apprehension. It really is true; a journey of a thousand miles does begin with a single step. But the first step is the easy bit! The early years were very hard, harder than we all expected. The company was constantly teetering on the verge of insolvency, we were paying ourselves virtually nothing (out of money we had lent the company in the first place) and, for the most part, we were simply scraping by. There was so much to do and so little time to do it in. We had a great deal to learn and there were also many prejudices and entrenched attitudes to overcome.
One of our first tasks was to think of a name for the business. We settled, after many false starts, on ‘Inspire’, with an ‘s’. But that name was taken so we put a ‘z’ in it and Inspire became ‘Inzpire’. Then we had to design a logo. We still use the same logo today – it represents the moment of blinding light that marks the end of total darkness during a solar eclipse. We thought that this was a good metaphor for the ‘new light’ that we were trying to bring to defence. Of course, there were plenty who sneered. We ignored them and pressed on.
Our first strapline featuring proudly on the wall of our Landmark House office
We also came up with our first strapline: ‘success through excellence’, which we felt captured the essence of what we were about. In those early years, we had to learn, very fast, about all aspects of running a business: finance, marketing, operations, HR, strategy - you name it, we had to master it. It was extremely demanding and we got a lot of things wrong but, little by little, we inched forward. I had previously gained an MBA at Warwick Business School but one of the things I quickly realised is that nothing teaches you about business like founding a start up with your own money!
Somehow, we survived the ‘shock of birth’ and slowly started to win trust and gain credibility. Gradually, we started to be noticed. In the early years, we were all working from our homes but then there came a point where we were (just about) able to afford a small 1-room office in Henley Way in Lincoln. Over time, that turned into 2 rooms and eventually we expanded to occupy the whole ground floor of the office block. Around about this time, Ian Ansell, one of our original founders, decided to leave us to pursue other interests, which was a great shame and he is still missed – one of life’s great people.
Mark and I pressed on as a pair. In 2013, after turning down an offer of an outright ‘buy out’ from a major defence prime contractor (which was hard to do given the financial struggles we had been having), we accepted an investment from a family fund of wealthy High Net Worth individuals who remained with us for around 5 years. They took a 45% stake in the company and their arrival saw us move into a smart new office, Landmark House. We acquired a professional sales director, a full time finance director and a proper commercial director. Our company was growing up. The period 2013-2018 saw us grow very rapidly, learn a lot of new things, and expand into many new areas. Our rate of recruitment started to grow.
In the early days, we were essentially a service business, but today we also make some amazing products. Most notably, we have developed the GECO Mission Support System, that is in widespread use in UK and internationally. In addition, we produce a very innovative Mission Training Device (a simulation capability) that we have sold to European customers. We have become a very diverse business.
Our GECO tablet in one of our mission training devices
Our portfolio includes: training the British Army to fly and operate Apache and Wildcat helicopters; generating training material for intelligence officers at JITG Chicksands; providing the independent White Force (trainers) for the UK Air Battlespace Training Centre; and supporting operational training at the UK Air Warfare Centre and 29 Sqn (the Typhoon Operational Conversion Unit). Many of the UK’s biggest live and synthetic training exercises are actually designed and delivered by Inzpire. We also provide superb Human Factors training to all ab-initio pilots in the RAF and we have huge expertise in ISR and unmanned systems, having worked on many training projects such as Protector. We have deep expertise in the design of training systems.
Inzpire's Al Allsop and Mark Doney, who work on RAF Coningsby's 29 Squadron
It has not all been plain sailing and there have been plenty of dramas along the way. Like all businesses, we have made some mistakes but we have tried to learn from them. A few amazing people have come and gone, though our employee turnover remains remarkably low and our lure remains as powerful as ever. Last year we had over 1000 CVs sent to us – not bad for a 200 person business!
On the positive side, we have had many successes. We are profitable, strongly generating cash, rapidly growing both our top and bottom lines, and completely debt free. Inzpire has never had any external debt and everything that we have achieved, has been achieved organically. We have generated around 1500 person-years of employment, with all the benefits that brings to individuals, families and society. This year we have reconfigured our business into 4 semi-autonomous OBUs (Operational Business Units) which marks another step change in our evolution. Recently, we have recruited our first ever non-executive director, a former Chief of Defence Intelligence. We are evolving all the time. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly we are becoming some thing better.
We are growing fast and, six years running, we have been selected a Sunday Times Best 100 SME. For the same six years we have been selected as a Best Companies 3 Star Company (the highest level possible) with employee engagement described as ‘extraordinary’. We have won a Queens Award for Innovation in the past and, in 2019, we were selected as the Heropreneurs employer of the year for ex-military personnel. We have been a finalist at the National Business Awards and we have won a Defence Engagement Gold Award (most unusual for a business of our size). We are exporting to many countries and generating wealth for the UK and livelihoods for our employees. We are privileged to sit on the Cabinet Office SME Panel that advises the Government on SME strategy.
In 2018, our ownership changed again when our original investors exited and sold their stake to QinetiQ. We are now living in the 3rd Age of Inzpire and are very proud to be part of QinetiQ Group. We have much to learn from the remarkable organisation that is QinetiQ and QinetiQ has much to learn from the remarkable organisation that is Inzpire. The relationship has the potential to be game-changing for both businesses.
People often ask me what has been the secret of Inzpire’s success. I think it comes down to just a few simple things: a willingness to be different; an acceptance of risk; being happy to play the long game and having patience about financial returns. In addition, we have a powerful focus on recruiting the very best people and letting them operate in an agile way. We try very hard to create a trust-based environment and this is why we have leading edge HR policies such as completely uncapped paid leave. We also look after our people exceptionally well and provide an unparalleled benefits package for a business of our size. If things go wrong for our employees, they know we will be there for them. We also have a strong shared vision which we reinforce with profit related pay, share options, and other collective benefits. Finally – and this may be the most important thing of all - we constantly emphasise our higher purpose, i.e. why we exist, over and above just making money. Everyone at Inzpire knows that Inzpire is here ‘to create a revolution of honour, integrity, trust and excellence in defence’. That really matters to us.
The Inzpire 'Whyphoon', which was created out of words which all of our employees associated with why Inzpire exists
I look back with great pride on what Inzpire’s amazing employees have achieved. There is no doubt that the past 15 years have been a genuine David and Goliath story for this extraordinary UK Defence business. It is quite amazing what a small band of determined people can achieve. Where will Inzpire be in another 15 years? I think I know the answer to that: we will be the most trusted and respected defence brand on the planet.
Inzpire Limited has delivered its GECO Mission Support System to 845 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), part of the Commando Helicopter Force.
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