"I never look at figures – I go and visit the shops" Five minutes with John Timpson CBE

8 May 2017
Close up of laptop keyboard, notebook and mouse

John Timpson, Chairman of Timpson, the independent shoe repair and key-cutting retail outlet found on high streets all over the county, has a reputation as something of a management ‘maverick’. 

He allows all his employees the day off on their birthdays, subsidises staff holidays by investing in villas which they can use for free and has supported the recruitment of ex-offenders – 10 per cent of the company’s employees have spent time in prison. Employees, all of whom are called colleagues, also enjoy an unusual degree of autonomy in the running of the individual shops.

Before a recent talk at Winchester Business School as part of the Responsible Business seminar series 2017, John spoke about putting people first and doing good through the power of business.

What does the concept of ‘responsible management’ mean to you as Chairman of a successful high street retail chain?

You know what? We don’t really think in those sorts of terms. Social responsibility doesn’t come in to our language – we just do what we want to do. The most important thing you’ve got to do in a business is look after your own people. Don’t start looking after the rest of the world until you’ve looked after the colleagues who are in your own business, because that’s your prime responsibility. And then beyond that, do what you want, do something you’re interested in. We do things to do with prisons and things to do with children. They’re all projects that we’re involved in and we talk to the people who are doing it.

You’re renowned for your own unique style of management which you’ve coined ‘upside-down management’: what does that mean exactly and how does it work in practice?

It started because I discovered that the only way to give great service is to trust the people who serve the customers to do it the way they want. That’s where we get the idea of the chart where the people at the top are the people who serve the customers and the management are all below them and their job is to help and support the people who serve the customers and make the money.

But we’ve gone a lot further than that now because we’ve learned that everyone should have the freedom to do the job the way they want. So the middle managers, although they were the most resistant at the beginning, because they couldn’t see how they could be responsible for the results of their area if they couldn’t tell everyone what to do, they now recognise that they have the freedom to run their area the way they want on one condition: they’ve got to give their colleagues within their team the freedom to do their job the way they want. And everyone gets it, it works.

Employees are obviously key to Timpson’s success and you support your employees – or colleagues as they are called – in a number of ways, including giving staff the day off on their birthday. Is that about engagement or wellbeing or both?

Probably neither. Our business depends on having really great people: if I’ve got great people, I’ve got a great business. That means picking people with the right personality and getting rid of those people who haven’t got it. But then if you’ve got someone who’s great and you’d rate 10/10, it makes an awful lot of sense to look after them as much as you can.

If you’ve someone who’s 10/10 and suddenly they start performing not that well, I guarantee it’s not what’s happening at work, it’s happening in the rest of their lives. It makes a lot of sense to help them: like if they’re in debt, lend them the money. If they’ve got some personal problems, point them towards the help and even pay for it. To an extent, that is wellbeing but what we’re doing is looking after the really good people. It’s just logical – you look after the people who are really good.

Around 10 per cent of Timpson employees are ex-offenders: what kind of skills, abilities and outlooks do you believe they bring to the workplace?

We select them on exactly the same basis we select everyone else. We’re only interested in people’s personality, we don’t care what their CV says, what their qualifications are and we don’t care what offence they might have committed or why they were in prison. Because very few other businesses employ people who’ve been in prison, we’ve got the pick of the bunch, and also when they come to us they’re more loyal and more grateful for having a job than most of the other people. We’ve been doing this for 15 years and we’re now finding a lot of them are moving up through the organisation and becoming middle and senior managers.

Ex-offenders are not necessarily people going round with knives and guns. They could have been in prison for a major crime that was an enormous stroke of bad luck. There are some quite tragic stories out there. But you’re really completely reconstructing their lives – it requires quite a lot of the support I mentioned earlier. 

You spend a lot of time visiting your shops around the country. Why do you think that’s important and what do you do when you’re there?

It’s terribly important that the person running the business meets the people making the money. I turn up and stay for five or ten minutes and have a quick chat to everybody. I’ve been to 17 shops today in Southampton, Winchester and Eastleigh. It’s very important that people know whose business it is, because it happens so rarely. And also, you know what? You learn a lot about the business. I know where all the shops are and what they look like: we’ve got 1900 of them and I can learn a lot more about the business from visiting them than looking at figures. I never look at figures – I go and visit the shops.

Finally, what advice would you give to people who want to do good through the power of business?

Firstly, I’d say that I don’t think that people in business, or government or anyone realise that business leaders have got more opportunity to do good than anyone else. Much more so than people in the church, social workers and probably even teachers, because business leaders are in contact with more people and have got the resource to do it. I think it’s a waste of time them trying to do anything unless they believe in it – that’s true of everything else in business. But if you’ve got someone who is a head of a business and is on a mission then they can do an awful lot of good.

My advice would be - use that opportunity but remember that your first job is to look after the business, because if you haven’t got a great business then you can’t look after everyone else and you have to start by looking after the people who are looking after the business for you. Then beyond that, do good where you want to. Don’t pour money into someone else’s project: concentrate on supporting, working with someone you know or start your own project.

I’m about to change our company charity to something I’m calling the Alex Timpson Trust after my late wife. It’s about attachment disorder and foster children and looked-after children which I’m connected with. I’m trying to influence the whole of education to understand why a lot of the challenging kids who come to them are as they are and what we can do about it. And no-one else is doing that so it’s a very good reason to go down that route.

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