Chairman of adhesives company Global Resins, David Hempleman-Adams is also a world record-breaking mountaineer, aviator and polar explorer. Sometimes these lives come together in a bizarre way.
"There have been times when I've felt like a walking test laboratory," says David Hempleman-Adams, recalling an Arctic expedition where he had samples of his company's industrial adhesives packed away in his explorer's sled. "We would put our products through various procedures in our cold chamber back home to see how they stood up to low temperatures. Then I'd take them out into the field. Of course, the results we got back from the Arctic were never the same."
Hempleman-Adams, now in his mid-50s, is a man with two lives. On the one hand he's a successful businessman with a career in special adhesives and power supply systems. On the other, he's a record-breaking mountaineer, aviator and polar explorer. While he is known most as an explorer, he's "never taken a penny out of exploration. It's my hobby, and I wouldn't want to make a living from it". He says that the existence is too precarious, and "you're only as good as your last trip. And there's the risk of young explorers coming through putting pressure on the situation. It's better for me to have a real job".
As you might expect from the market sectors he works in, Hempleman-Adams has a strong engineering background. His father was an industrial chemist, and before that his grandfather owned "a big engineering company that made a two-part epoxy resin called Araldite that would go into cable joints or applications such as satellite or computer". He claims to "know nothing about chemicals and I still don't to this day. But I know a man who does". He's referring to his brother Mark who "inherited his father's chemical engineering genes" and is the managing director of Global Resins, the company of which David is the chairman.
Friendly and generous with his time, Hempleman-Adams is what business school analysts would call a typical 'Y-manager', the type that takes pride in being 'one of the boys', who has learned from the school of hard knocks that respect is a commodity to be earned. "I used to be interested in psychometric testing and all that sort of thing. But I've got more faith in the 'pint of beer' test." He explains that he has "shiny pieces of paper that say I'm a qualified manager". But it means nothing "if you can't drive a fork-lift truck", and he points out repeatedly that he would never ask anyone to do anything he couldn't or wouldn't do himself. It's an old-fashioned approach and one that has stood him in good stead, both on the shop floor and in the most hostile and remote places on earth.
While still in his 20s, armed with his Duke of Edinburgh Award and an MBA, Hempleman-Adams realised that in order to do the kind of adventure he had set his sights on he needed a proper job. This all came a little too soon when he stepped into the family business to help out following his father's heart attack. "I'd never planned to go down that route, although it did give me a regular pay cheque. Being in an office really clipped my wings for many years and it was very frustrating when all I really wanted to do was get out in the mountains."
Hempleman-Adams recalls how he once packed up work on a Thursday afternoon, changed out of his suit in Heathrow Airport car park and caught an evening flight to Canada. "We flew to Ottawa, and then up to Resolute Bay. Then we took a Twin Otter plane up to Eureka on Ellesmere Island and were eventually skiing by Saturday evening." For Hempleman-Adams, who describes himself as having commuted to Canada, this was not a one-off. On one occasion he set off on a 21-day trip that turned out to be the first ski expedition to the Geomagnetic North Pole. After such trips he would fly home "and go straight back to work that morning". Today, he is heavily involved with a number of charities such as St John's Ambulance and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and for him the real issue is "getting the balance of business, family, charity and adventure right".
Hempleman-Adams has often said that he's not a conventional explorer. What he means by this is that, despite his world records in the fields of aviation, mountaineering and polar exploration, he's not a professional in the way that his contemporaries such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes or Sir Chris Bonington are. Yet, his effect on the landscape of modern exploration has been as inspirational as it has been significant. If ever there was an individual explorer of the modern age that embodies the old-fashioned British values of toughness, determination and excellence, it is Hempleman-Adams. Whether by land, air or occasionally by sea, he has pushed the limits of endurance and courage time after time.
Inspired by the likes of Jacques Cousteau and the pages of the National Geographic magazine, Hempleman-Adams started his adventures at the age of 13. He's come a long way since then via a route that has nearly always been characterised by the extremes of cold and danger. A small sample of the records he holds speaks for itself. He was the first person to complete the so-called "Grand Slam attaining the Geographic and Magnetic North and South poles in combination with the Seven Summits intercontinental mountaineering challenge. In 1992, he led the first team to walk unsupported to the Geomagnetic North Pole. Then, 1996 saw a solo and unsupported expedition to the South Pole, closely followed by a sailing voyage to the Geomagnetic South Pole. All in all, he has made more than 30'polar expeditions and has reached various poles on 14 occasions. He has been instrumental in helping his three young daughters to set more modest polar records for themselves.
But there is more to Hempleman-Adams than terrestrial polar adventuring. In 2000, he became the first person to fly over the North Pole in a hot air balloon, and in doing so achieved what aeronaut Salomon Andrée had failed to do a century earlier. As an aviator he has crossed the Atlantic in a wicker basket rosier balloon in 2003. The following year he flew in a single engine Cessna 11,060 miles from Cape Colombia in northern Canada to Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. He also holds the less serious but still gruelling record for the highest altitude formal dinner party. Along with Bear Grylls he ascended in a balloon to 24,262ft dressed in evening wear.
Getting stuck in
After a few years behind a desk Hempleman-Adams found himself owning 65 per cent of a multi-million pound turnover adhesives company that was "doing very, very well". When Hempleman-Adams was a castaway on Desert Island Discs in the late 1990s, presenter Sue Lawley described his job as making 'posh glue'. What this actually meant was that he was supplying the electronics industry and in particular "we were involved with road traffic systems on the electrical side".
Eventually, two decades ago Hempleman-Adams was tempted by a takeover offer that he "couldn't really refuse". Included in the sale agreement was his retention of the electronic traffic systems monitoring loop side of the business"so if any readers get a speeding fine while going around the M25, that's my fault. When the electronics are put into the road, you've got to protect them against heavy loads and big differentials in temperature, which was where we came in."
And so Global Resins came into existence, a company that describes itself as specialising in the formulation and manufacture of epoxy and polyurethane resin systems and one of the key players in resin systems developed for the traffic market. In yet another parallel career Hempleman-Adams joined the board of US electronics company XP Power, a $150m turnover company specialising in AC-DC power supplies and DC-DC converters.
"That's got a good synergy with Global Resins. It's also a very good barometer of the economy over here. XP has a factory in California, and what happens there seems to happen in the UK about six months later."
Hempleman-Adams says that when you mention to people that you make glue, they tend to think of you boiling up horses' heads in the back of a knacker's yard. If you're lucky, you might conjure up an image of the type of blister packs of two-part epoxy resins that you find in DIY superstores. This doesn't help with the image of his industry sector because "Joe Public will always find a way of messing that up, even if you have a syringe of hardener on one side and resin on the other".
The result of this is that, to stand any chance of working properly, the formulation for consumer adhesives "has to be so wide in its tolerance that it will still work even when it is wrongly used. But when you are supplying an automotive company - and we might put in 100 tonnes to one manufacturer alone - where adhesives are applied by machine, then the formulation can then get down to perhaps 0.01 per cent accuracy. The result is that the formulation will be incredibly strong and specific to the product. We can place our product on the top of your car and lift it with a crane and the adhesive will be the strongest part of the vehicle. Other bits will fall off, but the roof will stay stuck to the lifting plate".
As the conversation comes to a close, I ask Hempleman-Adams if the explorer in him has learned anything from the businessman or vice versa. "I think that the relationship between the two has been greatly overstressed in the past," he says.
"But I suppose when you're sitting out on the Arctic ice, starving and frozen, waiting for days to be picked up by an aeroplane that doesn't seem to want ever to turn up, you have to learn to be a bit patient and try to remain calm. And I think these are things I try to do in my business life."