Sir John Timpson
Sir John Timpson shares some of the secrets of his success with Maria McGeoghan as he explains how his £160m shoe repair and key cutting business has expanded into fixing iPads and printing customised photographs.
There’s something a bit different about Timpson. Not just the big smiley face painted on the ground as you enter the car park at the company’s head office in Manchester or the “Reserved for colleague of the month” parking space right by the front door.
It’s not the reception area that doubles as a key cutting shop, Duke the dog who lives there playing with his toys, or the many noticeboards groaning with “thank you” cards.
It’s not even the 10-foot tall red sparkly stiletto shoe that adorns one of the open-plan office landings or the lifestyle model of a camel resting in a corner. It’s that everyone I encounter is smiling and cheerful and seems happy to be there.
“Oh, I don’t know if the camel has a name, but I always thought it would be a good place to have a nativity scene at Christmas,” says Christine, who has been at Timpson for 35 years and is now personal assistant to Sir John Timpson, the chairman. “We’re very lucky to have such a lovely office.”
We go past the boardroom, glass on one wall and what looks like flock wallpaper on the other. “We call that Cobbler’s Cottage,” says Christine, as we pass two original red phone boxes. “Really handy if you need to make a personal call,” she adds, as we go on to the gym and a quick chat with the in-house manicure and massage lady who is waiting for her next appointment. It’s a remarkable environment.
Timpson was established in 1865 and is still family-owned and run by Sir John Timpson as chairman and his son James Timpson as chief executive.
Something of a legend in the world of business, 74-year-old Sir John is a prolific writer on management style and has been the Daily Telegraph’s business agony uncle for nine years. He’s also renowned for his philanthropy and was knighted in the Queen’s birthday honours list for his services to business and fostering; he and his late wife, Alex, who died in January 2016, fostered 90 children over 31 years.
You can tell straight away that he loves what he does and is proud of how the business has grown over the years. The group continues to expand by opening stores – mostly concessions or pods in supermarkets – and growing its photo business, which now includes high street names like Max Spielman, Tesco Photo and Snappy Snaps.
Timpson is also expanding its national locksmiths’ business and introducing services such as mobile phone and iPad repairs.
“So, what do you want to know?” says Sir John, cutting straight to the chase. We start at the very beginning. “The business was started by my grandfather in the 1860s. In 1949, we were making £600,000-£700,000 profit, which is the equivalent of £20m now.
“We were the best shoe retailer in the North. It was a very, very good business. Everyone got their shoes from us. We were in the main industrial areas but they were the ones that were going to suffer first.
“In 2003, we were making a £5.4m profit. We’ve now got 5,000 colleagues, 1,900 outlets, a turnover of £300m and £25m profit. And that’s with no borrowing.”
He lets that sink in for a minute. A knack for spotting when a trend is on the up or down plays a big part in this success.
Who would have thought that photo shops would still be doing a roaring trade in this digital age? “Personalisation is a big thing,” says John. “It’s growing all the time. Pictures on canvas, picture gifts, customers still get their pictures printed out. And we’ve got people there that can help you and that makes all the difference.
“You can’t park in a town centre and when you get there, there’s no atmosphere so you go out of town. Supermarkets are very, very busy. We’re opening three outlets a week out of town.”
Over the years, businesses have been bought and sold, but when I suggest that he must know a thing or two about due diligence, he laughs and disagrees, vigorously.
“Due diligence? Due diligence? We do it all ourselves. You should know what you are buying. You should know the people. I once did a deal to buy some shops over dinner at St Andrews.”
He admits he is a business maverick and believes his own “upside-down management” is one of the keys to business success.
“The secret is to let people do what they want, manage the way they want,” says Sir John. “There’s no point doing all sorts of training if they haven’t got the right personality to deal with anything the customer throws at them.
“We are proud of our customer service but it only works with the right people. They need great personalities. I don’t care what they have done. The only useful thing on a CV is your name and address. It’s all about what you are like and how you behave. We like buzzy people.”
He recounts a recent graduation ceremony where he was joined on the stage by his son James. “We were the nearest to the graduands as they came on stage. We watched them all come up and we agreed none of them seemed to be right for us. It’s their expression, it’s how they walk and talk.
“We have 51 managers with a team of six each. They are the engine room. We don’t hang on to anyone who we think is no good. We say, nicely, that your best isn’t ever going to be good enough but we’d like you to be happy somewhere else.”
And here’s a top-flight business executive who doesn’t believe in holding many meetings.
“We don’t do things because we think we ought to. It’s all about common sense. We don’t do many meetings here. They can stifle a business.” To prove the point, he looks through his diary. “There, look. A pensions meeting today, nothing in August and then nothing until 28 September.”
When I ask about more of his secrets of success, Sir John gets me his book “Keys to Success” and we go though some of the chapter headings together.
Perfect day: “No shop can be tidy all the time so we have one ‘Perfect Day’ a year, when everything is just that – perfect. Some of the staff dress up. We’re also planning an ‘Amaze Me’ week where we will have one random act of kindness a day. Buy poor performers: “There’s no point in buying a company that’s doing well. You need to improve it.” Never make decisions at a meeting: “The best decisions are made in private and confirmed at a meeting.” Be wary of outsiders: “Plenty of people think they know how to improve your business. Most of the people who work here started out as apprentices.” Sit down with an A4 pad: “In the bath or on the beach – great ideas appear as a flash of the obvious.” Have a mentor: “My mentor was my wife but sadly no more. Mentors don’t tell you what to do but their support helps you make the right choices.” No head office: “Don’t let people who seldom go near a shop tell front-line troops what to do. We banned answering machines. The nearest person picks up the phone and does what they can to help.”
“We’ve only got two rules in the shops. Look the part and put the money in the till. We don’t have a marketing or public relations department but most people have heard of Timpson. We don’t even have human resources – we call it colleague support. We like to break the rules.”
We turn to Brexit. “I thought it was a good thing not to be run by Europe but we are finding that it’s not going to be easy to get out. We could finish up in a worse position than when we started. I don’t think anyone is going to be better off.
“I sort of despair now. It’s like going in to bat in a game where you don’t know the rules, how to play or how to know if you are winning or not. And then I think does it matter to me? I don’t think it’s going to have much influence on our business.
“I think we should have an upside-down government. Let people get on with it. Help them to do things better, not tell them what to do. But then I always was a rebel.”
And with that I say goodbye and head out to the car park to find that I’ve been the recipient of a random act of kindness.
The cheery man at reception who took my car keys has turned it around so I can drive straight out instead of reversing. Now that’s what I call service.