Shaper: Sir John Timpson

Show aired on 23rd December 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Ray Charles, one of my favourites, Hit The Road Jack, here on Jazz FM. Good morning this is Elliot Moss and you’re listening to Jazz Shapers. Every Saturday I’m very lucky I get to meet someone who is shaping the world of business and right alongside them I also play music from the people who is shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul. And together that makes up the thing that is called Jazz Shapers. I am very pleased to say my Business Shaper today is John Timpson. Sir John Timpson to add actually and Sir John is the Chairman of Timpson, they are the High Street Service Business doing all sorts of things, as you probably well know, for you and there is almost two thousand of the stores around the country so no doubt you’ve visited one at least once in the last few months. Lots coming up from John very shortly. In addition to hearing from John you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business I hope. And on top of all of that some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including Snarky Puppy, John Lee Hooker and this from Eliane Elias.

Sambo Sambo that was Eliane Elias and a lovely version too. You’re listening to Jazz Shapers and Sir John Timpson is my Business Shaper today, he is the Chairman of Timpson, they are on the High Street in lots of places. Very recently I fixed at least two watches there and it’s a real pleasure to have you.

John Timpson
Thank you very much.

Elliot Moss
I am really, really pleased you’ve joined. Now John your experience of business is decades long just tell me… don’t be embarrassed…

John Timpson
Don’t mention it.

Elliot Moss
…Yeah thank you Elliot for telling the whole world that I have indeed lots of experience. Just let us go back to the moment when obviously you came into the family business back in 1970 and then by 19… early 1980s you were leading a management buyout and you took one type of business into another. What was, if we can cast our minds back, what was all that about?

John Timpson
I’ll go a bit further. I actually started in 1960, I am even older than you think. And it was a family business and it went out of the family because we had a big boardroom bust up between my father and his cousin, the cousin was really keen to grab control of the business. So father got voted off as Chairman and we sold our shareholding, we became part of another group which was called UDS, it doesn’t exist anymore alongside names you might remember like Richard Shops, John Colliers, Allders Department Stores, all gone from the High Street, but we are still there. And a few years later I got the chance of buying the business back, a management buyout, I never heard what it… didn’t even know what a management buyout was in those days, 1983. And that was a wonderful thing to do to get what was a business being started by my great grandfather back into pretty well, although I owned a substantial percentage from then on, but not the lot. And then I had a nightmare for four years because to have a highly leveraged shoe retail shop, a chain of shops in the 1980s was not good news as I discovered and I hit the, I hit a moment in about 1986 when I realised I couldn’t actually really justify opening another shop. When you’ve got a chain that you can’t keep it growing, it is time to think and luckily I found someone to buy it and that, if I was going to think about the most traumatic moment of my life in business it was when I had to stand in front of the team actually back in the office and tell them I had sold the main part of the business because I was actually telling them that they were about to lose their jobs and I will never forget that, but looking back it was the right thing to do. And I kept what was the other bit of the business which was various sort of minor shoe repair thing. I thought of as sort of for something to do, but quickly realised that you can’t have a business which is just something to do because I think that wasn’t fair on the people in it. They thought well perhaps I will go and sell that as well so I bought another little shoe repair business and then we bought another one and that’s how we got to where we are now today.

Elliot Moss
And just going back to that traumatic event for a moment because just looking at you, you’re kind of, I see in your eyes that you are kind of there again for a moment. How many, I mean those lives are affected, you know people talk about business in very conceptual terms sometimes and in reality business is just made up of people and you had lots of people in there. You said it was the right thing to do. If you had to go back again, would you do the same thing?

John Timpson
I would have done it a lot quicker actually. I think, I strung the thing out for too long. I mean if I’d sold it quicker I’d have got more money for it anyway, but that’s beside the point. But it still doesn’t change the fact that a lot of those people had worked their lifetime for the business and it had been very much a family business and when my father was running it he was a very sort of caring sort of guy and we put people at the centre of the business then. And you can’t help but think how you have let people down. But, and, but, we still I mean today we very much put people at the centre of the business again and they trust us thank goodness and it’s that trust that is very important.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to hear all about that trust very shortly. Stay with me here on Jazz Shapers for more from Sir John Timpson, my Business Shaper, Chairman of the Timpson business. Time for some more music, this is Snarky Puppy and Magda Giannikou with Amour T’es Lá.

Snarky Puppy and Magda Giannikou, I hope I am saying it correctly, with the lovely Amour T’es Lá. Sir John Timpson is my Business Shaper today and we were talking briefly about an event, an important event back in 1983 which may sound a strange thing to say, but an important moment I think for you John and for the business as well. So then you talked about this, well I am going to create this other, this repair business, see what happens and it was just a bit of a see what happened. But then much more structure comes in, much more opportunity emerges and over the last whatever it is, twenty years or so, you have now built a – and you’re going tell me this is wrong – but around two hundred million pound plus revenue business.

John Timpson
Quite a bit more than that now…

Elliot Moss
Quite a bit more now…

John Timpson
…actually it has been growing very quickly.

Elliot Moss
…well you are doing something right.

John Timpson
We are heading about, we are about three hundred and fifty million or something at the moment.

Elliot Moss
My facts are out of date already. That’s brilliant. If you cast your mind back to when you made the conscious decision to make this the proper business, the next iteration of the family business, what were the two or three ingredients for your success do you think? What foundations did you lay then which you are now looking at today and going ‘they were smart things to do’?

John Timpson
There was a moment. I don’t believe in forward planning very much, we do a lot of thinking ahead in fact I, every three years I write my annual report for fifteen years’ time which is an interesting exercise because it takes you right away from the current and makes you think about what could happen. But there was one particular thing and I call it a light bulb moment and you get, you get suddenly flashes of the obvious and bits of luck and that’s how businesses grow. And my flash of the obvious was about twenty three years ago when I realised the secret behind great customer service which is very simple, very obvious, should have learned it before, which is actually you can’t do it by a set of rules, you don’t do it by lots of training courses, it doesn’t help very much if you have notices in the back staffroom saying ‘smile you’re on stage’ and all this sort of stuff. The only way to provide great customer service in our sort of business is to trust the people who serve the customers to do it the way they want. Once you have given the people who serve the customers that sort of freedom then it changes the way you run the business and that’s what happened to us twenty three years ago. And the change since then has been absolutely incredible. When I say we changed the way we run the business, we now call it, I call it upside down management which is my name for it and everyone who is not serving customers is there to help the people that do. That’s what they are there for. So our managers, our bosses, aren’t allowed to tell anyone what to do, they don’t give orders. They give freedom, they trust the people who work within their team to do things their way and their job is to support them.

Elliot Moss
And I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that so simply and so clearly and I just have one question related to that. So, in order for that to happen you must have to hire the right people and how do you ensure that they are the right people?

John Timpson
No, spot on, spot on. I mean basically two problems to get it going, one was we weren’t hiring the right people, we were hiring shoe repairers and key cutters and I wanted people with personality. And however good the shoe repairer is, if he is a grumpy cobbler, he will always be grumpy and not be good with customers. So yeah, it only works with people with the right personality. And the other problem is you actually have to work quite hard in the first, I found five years to get, particularly middle management or all management people, to understand their job has changed. Their job is not to try and set a process, to tell people exactly how they do their job, they’re there to help them, give them the freedom to do their job and clear the obstacles out of the way to make it as easy for them as possible. So basically what people who run our shops and that’s mainly the people out of the field, they have three main trusts. One is to pick the right people, right personalities. Secondly is to get rid of the people who are not right and that’s terribly important. It might sound negative, but it is very important and then the third thing is to look after the people who are great. A lot of that looking after is nothing to do with the business because if you’ve got someone who is really good who suddenly starts to not be quite as good at their work, I will guarantee that something else is happening in the rest of their lives. So a lot of what our bosses are doing is actually mentoring, helping out with you know addiction problems, relationship problems, bereavement, often debt problems, sorting out those things that get in the way of our colleagues doing a great job in the workplace. So it’s a very different sort of, but it actually is a much more fulfilling job than what most people associate being an everyday boss is.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me and I hope you are taking notes because this is a masterclass in re-thinking the basics of how to treat people well both inside your business and outside your business i.e. those people called customers who are quite important to the success of a business. The latest travel coming up in a couple minutes and before that some words of wisdom from our programme partners I hope are as wise as the ones you’re hearing from Sir John over here, programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I talk to someone who is shaping the world of business, making waves and doing things their own way. If you have missed any of the previous almost three hundred programmes, go into iTunes, out in the words ‘jazz’ and ‘shapers’. CityAM.com is another destination as is British Airways High Life. Right now though Sir John Timpson is my Business Shaper here in front of me, Chairman of Timpson, in excess of three hundred million pounds I learnt earlier in terms of revenue with around 1,850 stores and 110 Snappy Snap franchises as well. John you said something very, very, well many things that were interesting, but behind the point about trust, getting the right people in and then them being empowered to be trusted to serve properly. You said and the other thing we really do is we ensure that we understand what’s going on in their lives to enable them to be the best version of themselves and I am now putting words in your mouth on that last point. In terms of the fact that there is bereavement going on, there’s stress around debt and everything else. Talk to me a little bit about why you have been so interested in looking at that more human side of a person and how mental health for you has been an issue over the years.

John Timpson
Oh well two things there actually. We will come to the mental health bit later if you like. There are events that make a massive difference to any business and they are not the sorts of things you expect. I’ve no doubt that our business has been influenced enormously by the fact I married Alex, my late wife who died only just over a year and a half ago. Because she was a nursery nurse, she just loved looking after kids, so we had three children and when the youngest went to school she applied to become a foster carer. And that taught me an awful lot about other people and other people’s lives, but Alex’s example, I mean she just, she got kicks out of helping other people and she just used to say ‘well you know there are not enough givers in this world’. You can actually be nice and have a nice business that does very well and that’s what you should do, you should look after people and she influenced particularly, my Chief Executive is my eldest son who is very like his mother. So much so that we actually get on very well because every time we disagree I remember that he’s like Alex so I let him win and it’s as simple as that. But, oh so that’s one influence, but also yeah I mean you’re referring to the fact that I have had several times in my life and when I’ve actually had quite a lot of stress and it’s not very nice. Especially the first time you get it when you think you’re the only person in the world who gets up in the morning and either feels terribly miserable or very, there’s butterflies in their stomach and it alternates between the two and I think one of the feelings which actually is quite probably disturbing is that you look at everyone else and say ‘I wish I was like you’. How lucky you are because you haven’t got what I’ve got which is, well you can’t think straight. Well you spend your time thinking all the time about things which are terribly unimportant, you can’t distinguish between any sort of priorities and so Alex was very helpful through it. I mean she understood, she made sure I went to the doctor and luckily I got out of it, but I know it comes again.

Elliot Moss
And taking those two big things, Alex in your life and obviously James over there, your own personal experience of it, how do you help all the people in your business move from one way of seeing what the world which is maybe when they are in stress to not being stressed. What roles do you play?

John Timpson
Well as far as, I mean basically I make no secret about the problems I have had and where we have our leadership, we have a leadership management course which everyone actually finishes up going through it. We have a little film which actually was part of a documentary where I talk about it and on quite a few occasions after that someone has come up to me and said ‘can I have a word’ and ‘do you know what that’s exactly what I have been going through’ and I got one or two knocking around the office and we just put thumbs to each other when we pass saying ‘yep it’s going alright at the moment’. So it’s just by showing other people that there’s nothing, there’s nothing particularly unusual about being like that, nothing to be ashamed of, because you think, you literally as I said earlier, you think you are the only person in the world that has this problem, but in fact probably about thirty percent do or even more and the best thing to do is to talk about it, get advice and have patience because it does take time and suddenly you wake up one morning and it’s as if nothing ever had happened and life is fun again.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my exceptional Business Shaper today, the man in front of me, Sir John Timpson, Chairman of Timpson. Time for some more music, this is John Lee Hooker with Boom Boom.

That was John Lee Hooker with Boom Boom. Sir John Timpson is my Business Shaper today, Chairman of Timpson as I said earlier, the three hundred million pound plus revenue business doing rather well for the reasons I think outlined before that you heard from John. You mentioned James in passing, he is your Chief Executive, it is a family business and you said often that, half-jokingly in that relationship, that dynamic is around that he reminds you of the way your wife is in her and her behaviour and her personality and her sense of giving it sounds like. What’s it like being in a family business John, I mean obviously you’ve not known the corporate world as such, but what is it that’s important?

John Timpson
Well I was in the corporate world a bit.

Elliot Moss
How long were you in the corporate world for?

John Timpson
About ten years.

Elliot Moss
Okay blimey gosh. I’ve sat there so many years. But for you though, because it’s been so long being at the helm of the family business, what are the things that you hold dear, what are the characteristics that make a family business different?

John Timpson
There are, I think you’ve got to use the fact it’s a family business for the sake of the business itself. One of the big advantages is the fact you get continuity and we know our people a lot better the most so most companies have got a Chief Executive that changes every five years, just about everyone who works in our business today have only known two, me and my son James. And we know our people and they know, also they know us. Now you go to most shops on the High Street and ask them what’s the name of the Chief Executive, they won’t know their name. You go into one of ours and say ‘have you met John or James’ and most of them will say ‘yeah, he was here a month ago’. We’ve got a lot of shops now, we just about get round them every two years so it’s about best part of a thousand shops a year. And that, it might seem strange, but it makes an enormous difference. And another thing, I mean we have no intention of doing any other than handing out business onto the next generation, the next generation. We are not going to sell out in any shape or form so we can think to the long term and we make sure we’ve always got money in the bank, we don’t go out over stretch ourselves and all these things are completely the almost the opposite to the way a lot of other businesses operate. So we, we in the end depend on how well we look after our customers and in some ways I think what we’ve tried to do is to involve our customers in the way we run our business which is why for quite a lot of the time in our shops I promote the way we run our business. I mean I tell our customers the fact that we give our colleagues their birthday off, we’ve got holiday homes that they stay at for free and every month we make someone’s dream come true, we do all sorts of whacky things and the customers like to feel they’re part of a business that cares about the people Because in the end if I’ve got friends they talked about a shop and you earlier when you were talking to me before we started talking on air about the shop, you talked about the people. You didn’t talk about the shop or the service particularly, you talked about the people and that’s exactly the way it should be.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with John, plus we will be hearing some new music from Courtney Pine, a vocalist and that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Courtney Pine featuring Omar, I hope you recognised his voice, with Darker Than Blue. Just for a few more minutes, Sir John Timpson, Chairman of Timpson is my Business Shaper. You talked a lot about your, your wife who passed away, we know because if you’ve heard about Timpson you will hear about the ex-convicts who work in the shop and I think there is around ten percent of the workforce.

John Timpson
Yeah there’s about five hundred people.

Elliot Moss
Yeah five hundred people. You are interested in mental health and areas around it. There is a massive sense of giving back to me, John. Just tell a little bit about this new charity that you’re creating.

John Timpson
Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, Alex and I were foster carers for thirty one years, we fostered ninety children but we also adopted two more and it was a long time before we discovered why a lot of them displayed such challenging behaviour which particularly with our elder adopted child. It was quite disturbing to Alex particularly because friends would come along and say ‘send him to us for a week, we will soon sort him out’, which is the most unkind thing to say to someone who’s spent ten years looking after this kid who actually was bloody annoying really. But did unbelievable things like disappear in the middle of the night at the age of fourteen and took one of our cars and drove a hundred and twenty miles down the motorway. That was, I mean there was lots and lots of things and the thing that made the difference was when Alex went to a training course organised by the Local Authority and there was a guy there talking called Dan Hughes who explained about attachment problems and attachment theory, the fact that these are children, looked after children particularly, these are children who haven’t had the right bonding, the right attachment during the first years of life and they therefore have spent their life feeling insecure, not really knowing who they are and always testing to see where that safety is, who they can trust. And that’s why a lot of looked after children in particular behave quite differently. And so I have spent quite a lot of time trying to explain that to other people. So once you get that, and I am trying to particularly bring that into schools and that’s what the current, the main thrust, initial thrust of what I am calling The Alex Timpson Trust, which is the charity we have started in our shops actually this week is about, is to try and get, I want to get every school in this country to be aware of what attachment is about and why a lot of those kids behave the way they do and once, and I have been involved in a lot of schools I’ve seen, once the people, and I am not just talking about the teacher, I am talking about everybody, once you explain that it’s this attachment problem and they are actually almost sending a message by behaving that way, they start to see the children differently, see them as people and they can give them a much better education. So that’s my current dream is to get every school to understand just that just one fundamental thing.

Elliot Moss
John it’s been a real pleasure talking to you and I am sure that your, this next dream will be realised because you have that look in your eye that says it will be and you’ve kind of had a journey yourself it sounds like to me and realised some very simple things which take some people a lifetime and maybe they never get there and you’ve got there and so it’s an absolute honour to have heard you talking about it all. Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

John Timpson
Okay, well it’s Buddy Holly, True Love Ways. This was, Alex and I went to Buddy the Musical about sort of, I don’t know, seven, eight, nine times and we had a silver wedding, it was not the cheapest party we went, we took Necker Island for ten days and took all our…

Elliot Moss
Just a low key affair.

John Timpson
Yeah. But it was a long time ago. It didn’t cost nearly as much money then. And on the anniversary itself Alex and I came down for dinner and they had this song playing and it’s always to me been our tune and reminds me of Alex.

Elliot Moss
Here it is just for you.

That was Buddy Holly with True Love Ways, the song choice of my Business Shaper today the brilliant Sir John Timpson. He talked about every three years writing a fifteen year annual report summary. What a great idea. He talked about flashes of the obvious and how he works hard to see those and he gets them. And he talked really importantly, and this is at the foundation of why Timpson has become such a successful business, trusting the people who serve customers. No rules, give them freedom and make sure management exists to support those people and he termed that phrase ‘upside down management’. Absolutely fantastic stuff. I wish all businesses were run the same way. Do join me again, same time, same place. That’s next Saturday here on Jazz FM for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us, coming up next it’s Nigel Williams.

Sir John Timpson

Sir John Timpson was born in 1943. He attended Nottingham University before completing a six-month graduate training programme with shoe manufacturer and retailer, Clarks. Following this, he joined the family footwear business, William Timpson Limited.

Sir John became the Director responsible for buying in 1970. Following the acquisition of the Company by the UDS Group in 1973, he became Managing Director of leather and fur retailers, Swears & Wells Limited, and in 1975 was appointed Managing Director of William Timpson, his original family business.

In 1983 Sir John led a £42m management buyout of the company which had become part of the Hanson Trust. In 1987 he sold the shoe shops to rival retailer George Oliver and subsequently concentrated on building up and diversifying the shoe repairing and key cutting business.

In 2000 he wrote a book “Dear James,” which passes on to his son the lessons learned in his 30 years as a Chief Executive. He describes his business philosophy in the books “How to Ride a Giraffe”, “Upside Down Management” and “Ask John”. “High Street Heroes” was published in 2015, and his latest book “Under Orders” is the diary of a racehorse owners’ husband. John also has a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, as a business agony uncle.

In 2017, Sir John was knighted for his services to business and fostering. He and his late wife Alex, who died in January 2016, fostered more than 90 children over 31 years.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“…a few years later I got the chance of buying the business back, a management buyout. I didn’t even know what a management buyout was in those days.”

“The only way to provide great customer service in our sort of business is to trust the people who serve the customers to do it the way they want.”

“Our managers, our bosses, aren’t allowed to tell anyone what to do. They don’t give orders, they give freedom. They trust the people who work within their team to do things their way and their job is to support them.”

“…however good the shoe repairer is, if he is a grumpy cobbler, he will always be grumpy and not be good with customers.”

“If you’ve got someone who is really good who suddenly starts to not be quite as good at their work, I will guarantee that something else is happening in the rest of their lives. So a lot of what our bosses are doing is actually mentoring.”

“My Chief Executive is my eldest son who is very like his mother. So much so that we actually get on very well because every time we disagree I remember that he’s like Alex so I let him win and it’s as simple as that.”

“You go to most shops on the High Street and ask them what’s the name of the Chief Executive, they won’t know. You go into one of ours and say ‘have you met John or James?’ and most of them will say ‘yeah, he was here a month ago’.”

” Alex and I were foster carers for thirty one years, we fostered ninety children but we also adopted two more and it was a long time before we discovered why a lot of them displayed such challenging behaviour…”