The Durham University and Newcastle Business School graduate has helped establish Timpson as the largest employer of ex-offenders in the UK.
Holding the title of chair of the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending, and a member of the Working Prison Business Advisory Group, James is dedicated to supporting people with criminal convictions to become valued colleagues.
Timpson’s 2,400-strong workforce includes 89 ex-offenders who trained at the company’s prison workshops.
James believes that prison works for his £180m a year turnover company as well as for the former prisoners on his payroll.
“I find the staff we’ve recruited from prisons are among the best colleagues we’ve got,” he said. “Over 10% of the employees in the group are ex-offenders. I believe cocaine dealers make the best cobblers because they’re very financially aware!
“We recruit people who have great personalities and why should that exclude ex-offenders? I don’t even read anybody’s CV. If they’re happy, friendly and reliable then I’ll hire them.
“That’s not to say I’m a walk-over – I’m also very good at getting rid of those who simply aren’t good enough. I call it, finding their happiness elsewhere!”
“I think the best way to avoid people going back to prison is to give them a good job.”
James admits his own childhood, although a happy one was unconventional.
“My parents were foster parents and my whole childhood was pretty chaotic,” he said. “They always had methadone in the fridge and I thought that was quite normal at the time.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the whole world of re-offending, prisons and social problems.”
James’ relationship with prisoners started 10 years ago when he recruited a young offender who impressed him during a visit to HMYOI Thorn Cross.
“When he was released I gave him a trial and he’s been with us ever since,” he said.
In the 10 years he’s been involved in working with prison industries, James admits there have been some hiccups.
“We’ve had to let people go sometimes - we give people a chance but we don’t take any messing,” he said. “We’ve learned to be selective – we’ve never employed sex offenders or people who are not right for work.
“But the reality is this – more than 26% of men over 18 have a criminal conviction and there are less than 100 people in prison who are never going to be released.
“That’s a lot of ex-offenders looking for work and in most cases, getting knocked back by potential employers.”
James cites the example of an ex-offender from Liverpool who had never worked in his life and had problems with drugs and alcohol.
“He was 47, and had been in prison for 28 years on and off,” said James. “He’s been with us for two years, and he keeps his monthly pay slips on a board to show the months he’s been out of prison. He’s great.
“Every ex-offender is heavily mentored in the first four to eight weeks to get them back into the swing of holding down a full-time job, and then we treat them like any other employee.
“Believe it or not, we have two ladies who were done for fraud working in our finance department and they’re fantastic!”
And with successes stories like this behind him, James believes his business contemporaries would do well to join forces with prisons.
He said: “I would say that if you’re in the business of wanting good people to work for you, you would be wise to look for talent in strange places, and one of those places may be prisons because from our experience, we’ve found lots of superstars there.”