From picturesque plantation life in the shadows of the Himalayas, to front-line fast jet air operations, RAF defence leadership roles and a spell in the intelligence community, many would assume Hugh Griffiths had seen it all.
But when his 21-year RAF career came to an end in 2006, his insatiable passion for military innovation put fleeting thoughts of teaching or healthcare to bed and brought him to the home of aviation – Lincolnshire.
As one of the founding members and current CEO of Lincoln-based defence company Inzpire Ltd, Hugh looks back at the inception of the business, three skilled military guys swapping ideas in a London restaurant, and chuckles.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work, and neither did anyone else. It was a bit of an experiment to see if we could do a better job of the things that weren’t being done particularly well by defence companies.
“There were three of us (me, Mark Boyes and Ian Ansell) with £100 each for the share capital, and that formed the business.”
It was a moment of ultimate risk, with no reputation and no money. The trio become a duo after Ian’s departure and the company’s journey was a laborious one for about three years as they balanced ambition with financial realities.
Slowly they started to win work, earning their stripes with the UK MOD, securing major projects to train RAF pilots, and offering a wealth of military expertise to military clients.
The team continued to grow and soon the Inzpire umbrella encompassed eight specialised operating areas including pioneering tech, simulation training for war fighters, and support for Tornado and Typhoon operations, as well as training the British Army to fly Apache helicopters.
Now, Inzpire are a force to be reckoned with, supplying award-winning defence management services and cutting edge technological solutions nationally and internationally. With an £11 million turnover in sight and a 50% growth in sales marked from the previous year, the company is on an unstoppable ascent.
The bug for aviation
When asked about his upbringing, Hugh smiles with a sigh, as if preparing to dive into a fond memory. “I’ve had an interesting life,” he begins. “I was born in Calcutta, India. I am the eldest son of a father who was originally in the British Indian Army.
“He joined the British Army and then the very next day they were looking for volunteers to join the Indian Army so he went and spent the war as a British officer in the 1st Punjab Regiment, which was part of Montgomery’s Eighth army in the battle for North Africa. He was a paratrooper and spent the war going backwards and forwards across North Africa fighting Rommel and then was at the battle for Monte Cassino in Italy.
“When the war ended he came back to England, but he couldn’t settle. He liked being with Indians. He saw an advert in the paper for a junior under assistance tea plantation manager in India. So he applied for it, got the job and ended up moving into agriculture and plantations of Assam tea.”
Back then, in the 1950s, Hugh explained there wasn’t much in the way of air travel. So when his father met his mother during a brief stop in England and romantically whisked her away to India they were in it for the long run.
“I lived my entire life up until the age of seven and a half in India. I spoke fluent Hindi, I spent my entire time with Indians and Indian children. We were living on the plantation in the middle of nowhere, in this steaming jungle area neighbouring the Himalayas. I had a great childhood. Then, at the age of seven I got packed off to boarding school in the UK, which was a bit of a shock.
“Boarding schools in those days weren’t what they are now. Prison camps is a better way to describe them. But I spent the years from seven to 18 flying back to India every holiday, and I ended up getting the bug for aviation through all the travelling.”
On leaving Taunton School in Somerset, Hugh went to the University of Leicester to study physics, a subject he still keenly follows, before being awarded a scholarship to join the Royal Air Force in 1986.
After his training he ended up spending most of his career on Tornado, accumulating around 3,000 fast-jet flying hours and becoming a Qualified Weapons Instructor and an Electronic Warfare Instructor. “You’ve seen the film Top Gun,” he explained, “this is the RAF’s equivalent of that, the tactics and weapons instructor.
“I also served as a front-line flight commander, participated in multinational air operations in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf and spent a lot of time flying over Iraq from Saudi Arabia in the peacekeeping operation and no fly zone enforcement.
“I had two periods when I wasn’t flying. One period I ended up working in the secret intelligence world. It was hugely interesting, I travelled all over the world doing that.
“Then right at the end, as I was leaving the air force, I ended up being the chief military advisor at something called the Defence Science and Technical Laboratory, which is basically the boffins. Using my physics background, I worked with them to try and develop new systems and that’s what gave me the idea for Inzpire.”
Hugh describes his transition into entrepreneurship as a ‘fluke’, but he’s certainly gaining as much recognition in the business world as he did in his military career.
He completed an MBA at Warwick Business School; he is a Chartered Director, a Chartered Manager, and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors, the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Chartered Management Institute, and the Institute of Leadership and Management. He was also recently a finalist in the acclaimed ‘Director of the Year Awards’ for London and South East England and has been a winner of the Chartered Manager of the Year.
Success through excellence
Inzpire’s first contract was training work on Typhoon, which the team have expanded on and are continuing today. “From there we spread out into synthetic training and it’s just been a slow spider’s web of growth,” Hugh said.
“The way we tend to work is we talk about sticking a screwdriver into a crack in the wall. We spot an opportunity and go for it.”
Inzpire’s synthetic training services have been an area of rapid growth and have, to date, aided the training of over 5,000 soldiers. One of its most successful projects is its management of the Air Battlespace Training Centre, based at RAF Waddington. The team there deliver UK and multi-national synthetic training exercises at networked locations around the world. Realistic training includes Typhoon simulators and an area dedicated to unmanned systems (or drones).
Among other notable products developed by the company is a tablet which works as a unique mission tool for pilots. The Graphical Electronic Cockpit Organiser (or GECO) won the Queen’s award for innovation in 2014.
The business is also beginning to plant roots internationally, with Jordan being its biggest overseas products customer. Hugh hopes to make their first international training contract with a far east customer to support helicopter pilots soon.
“We also hope to work with the Indian Air Force, and the Indian Army is very interested in our Apache training. Our Human Factors training, which prepares people for emergency situations and lowers the risk of human error, could be sold anywhere, it’s universally applicable. In fact I have actually been teaching a variation of the course to midwives.”
While Hugh admits it was tough going as an upstart, the company has benefitted from the advantage of tacit knowledge. “The big defence primes are making equipment and selling stuff and that requires engineering expertise, and there are lots of engineers around.
“What we’re doing is totally different, thought we also employ suburb engineers ourselves. We’re providing substitutable military training, so you can’t really do that unless you’ve actually done it and it’s quite hard to copy.”
On the shoulders of giants
With the Inzpire work force made up predominantly of former military people, the business has a DNA like none other in the country. “What we claim to be is experienced in aviation. Our team have flown all sorts of aircraft. I’d describe it as a hothouse of aviation knowledge and expertise.
“We’re part of a new idea called the whole force approach where you have three legs of a pillar, uniformed military, reservist and specialist civilian contractors working together. How we work is we embed ourselves in military organisations, we act as military but we wear different uniforms.”
From this, Hugh explains that the business has also maintained a military ethos of honour, trust and respect. “Old fashioned words like ‘honour’ and ‘respect’, you don’t hear them in business. But the word honour is used a lot here. The reason we’re successful is we know what we’re doing, but the most important thing for us is why we are here, and the reason we are here is to create a revolution of honour, integrity, trust and respect in defence. That’s why our vision is about being the most trusted and respected company, not the biggest.
“It’s not about me. I am the titular head of the company but it could equally be anyone else. I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of the fact we have a board that’s 40% female too.
“Too many leaders in business think ‘When I go I want the business to fail because then I’ll look really good’, but I think that’s a really poor leadership. What you should try to do as a leader is try to make yourself irrelevant. It sounds odd, but you should be trying to create the conditions in which the business doesn’t need you.”
Hugh, who for most of the week lives in Hampshire, says he has a ‘hands off’ approach to management. “It is all about trust and empowerment, letting people do the job and having the right team.”