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Break the rules to grow your startup

Sir John Timpson CBE has inspired countless business owners, both through the example he sets running his own company, Timpson, and through his business advice columns and books.

He’s the original maverick.

We created this show to bring you authentic stories from the front line of entrepreneurship, and it doesn’t get much more real than this.

On Sound Advice, John tells us how he’s grown his 150-year-old family business to more than 2,000 shops, despite nearly being ousted in a boardroom scuffle.

He also talks about how his practical and common-sense approach to managing people and growth has made his company more resilient and innovative.

And he shares the wisdom he’s collected over half a century as an entrepreneur.

Here’s what we cover:

Running a family business

Bex Burn-Callender:

John, hello and thank you for joining me. How are you today? Where are you today?

Sir John Timpson:

I’m actually in my office, which these days is not a usual thing.

I’ve been at my office for the last 35 years. So I should be familiar with it.

Bex Burn-Callender:

Do you still travel around the Timpson shops? I remember you used to do pilgrimages all over the UK to visit your colleagues in various shops.

Sir John Timpson:

Not as much I did, but it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t go to some shops every week.

I went to four yesterday, I’ve got to go to a few more today. It probably only amounts to 15 shops a week, something like that.

Bex Burn-Callender:

That’s quite telling, that you say only 15. I think a lot of chairmen and managers at businesses would clap themselves on the back for seeing 15 of their shops in a week.

That’s very interesting.

John, can you tell me the story of how you came to run this family business?

Sir John Timpson:

The first advantage is I was born into the Timpson family.

When I was at the age of 17, I started to work originally as a shop assistant, having spent six weeks training to be an accountant and I hated the whole thing.

I walked out of the accountants, went into my father’s office and got a job as a shop assistant.

Far too young, at the age of 27, I was put on the board.

Just in time to be part of a boardroom.

My father and his cousin were joint managing directors. My father was chairman, his cousin was deputy chairman, and they didn’t get on.

To the extent that his cousin got the rest of the board on his side.

Then one day they turned around and asked my father to resign.

It was all quite nasty really. Well, very nasty.

That was it. End of the family business really.

Then I got a call in 1975, saying, “Will come back and run the family business?” I replaced the cousin who’d created all the problems in the first place.

Since then, I’ve been running the business which, at that time, was mainly shoe shops.

I’d already been working on something I’d only just discovered a year before—a thing called a management buyout.

Trust allowed us to do the management buyout now in 1983. We bought it back, and we had a lot of luck.

Management got 80% of the shares because of a bit of a mix-up on the way the deal was done in our favour.

That was fantastic.

Your business needs to adapt as it grows

Bex Burn-Callender:

Tell me about how over the years you have continued to help Timpson to adapt. Because customers have changed, and the high street has changed.

Yet through it all, you’ve managed to stay successful.

What are some of the clever pivots and strategic tweaks you’ve made over the years that have helped you survive?

Sir John Timpson:

Luck!

Luck plays an enormous part in the development of the business.

Light bulb moments and luck are the biggest influence. It’s not planning. You’ve got to know how to take advantage of your luck.

You’ve always got to make an honest assessment of what business you are in and what you are good at?

We are not in the shoe repair business. We’re in the service business.

Our skill is picking the right people, allowing them to run our business in lots and lots of different locations all over the place, and keeping them motivated.

That’s what we’ve managed to be pretty good at.

We concentrate on areas where we can do that. This is why we like the idea of photos, even though it was losing a lot of money at the time.

Obviously, watch repairs are perfect. It is just a natural thing that we are better at than most other people.

Have a look at upside-down management

Bex Burn-Callender:

You’ve always been very vocal about that approach to business. That your specialists are your people. That the people who serve your customers, who are doing the job are the drivers of the business.

I know that you’ve called that upside-down management.

Can you tell us a bit about the underlying principles, how they’ve come to play and made you more successful than you could have been, otherwise?

Sir John Timpson:

There’s only one way to create a great service.

You don’t do that by having a lot of training courses or having nurses in the back stockroom saying, “Smile. You’re on stage.”

The only way you can provide exceptional service is to trust the people who work in the shops to do it the way they want because no customer is the same.

You’ve got to give people the flexibility to treat each customer the way they think is the right thing to do.

Not by a set of rules and not by pat words like some chains do. Let them do it their way.

That’s where the upside-down management thing started.

That taught us a lot about the right way to run a business. I thought it was a wonderful idea, to give everyone the freedom to do it.

I knew it would work very well in the States because there’s a book about department store Nordstrom.

Inside that book, there’s a management chart that is upside down. That makes the point that people who run the business are the people who serve the customers and everyone else.

The business is there to make it easy for them.

That’s what management is about. It’s providing support, not telling people what to do.

I have great enthusiasm. I went around to tell all the shops about this. You are allowed to do whatever you want.

When I thought about it, my first big problem was that the whole business was still being run by where I am now, the head office.

We had to change that.

We had to stop people in the office telling people in the shops what to do. Devising policies and processes, they had to go.

We told everyone in the office that they were not allowed to tell anyone what to do.

We stopped calling it head office.

We’ve gradually, and it took about five years, explained to everybody who is sitting at the centre, that they’re there to support the people who are really doing the job on the outside.

Then we had to fix those area managers who thought they were there to tell everyone what to do.

We completely changed the way that our bosses are bosses, because we said, “You are not allowed to assume any orders. You’ve got to find a different way to run your part of the business.”

If you’re running a group of shops, you run it by picking the right people and helping them to be really good. You are there to support them, not to tell them.

The whole way we run it changed so much for the better.

It means that our bosses are interested in helping people. Rather than just thinking about ideas and telling people what to do. It’s a very different way of doing things.

Bex Burn-Callender:

Did you lose a lot of those area managers? It must have been like you stripped them of all their power almost overnight.

I can imagine there would be a rebellion.

Sir John Timpson:

Yeah, of course, we did.

I mean a lot didn’t like it very much. In the end, I suppose, when I look at the area teams now, is that they are totally different characters than the ones we had then.

It was very difficult for them at that time. They’d all come up through the ranks. They’d all been told what to do by someone else.

Suddenly they’d been promoted.

They got the car and briefcase, and they were able to tell everyone. They could get their own back by telling other people what to do.

It was a big shock and you’re absolutely right—it only works if you’ve got the right people. That was the other thing. We learned that we needed a business full of nine or 10 out of 10 personalities.

Look for nines and tens with employees

Sir John Timpson:

People who wanted to do it. People who got it.

I went to Disney once and they said one of the secrets is just to have nines and tens in the business.

They asked me a difficult question, which was saying, “Do you still hang on to the six out of tens, five out of tens, or even the seven out of tens?

“Because if you do, you’ll never have a great business.”

Bex Burn-Callender:

When you say only get nines and tens, how do you find these rare mythical creatures?

Sir John Timpson:

Well, they’re there.

People are not looking for the wrong thing. They’re looking for qualifications and GCSEs and degrees and… they might be of some use.

The most important thing you need to look for is personality.

If you’ve got someone who is keen to do the job, will get on with other people and could talk to customers and has that lively personality, which other people are attracted to, they’re the sort of people you want.

You find them. When you interview, be aware of the personality.

We produced an interview form, which has got cartoons of what I call the Mr Man interview form, which has got Mr Happy, Mrs Keen and Mr Helpful and so on.

In a box underneath there is the other lot, such as Mr Grumpy, Mr Dull and Mr Slow.

You tick the boxes that most fit that person who’s in front of you. If it’s the positive boxes, get them to work in the shop for a day. We pay people to do that just to be alongside someone who knows what we’re looking for. That’s interviewing that’s the way to do it.

None of these psychosomatics, not AI, not doing it online or anything.

Have a chat with them and see what their personalities are like. If you can put together a whole lot of nines and 10 personalities, you’ll build a great business.

Bex Burn-Callender:

You’re not looking for those skill sets. Do you often train people up pretty much from scratch just because they have the right attitude?

Sir John Timpson:

We always do it that way.

People who work out in the field, all start as an apprentice. They have 16 weeks to learn the basic skills. We give them all the training they need. We’ve got manuals in words and pictures.

We make it as easy as possible, but they do need to get their level one skills and shoe repairs, key cutting watch repairs, engraving and all the other things we do, within the first 16 weeks.

Also, they must prove that they have that personality we hope they got in the first place.

It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from.

About 10% of the people we employ, as you know, come from prison and all go through the same process.

Everyone starts the same way, they’re all in it together, and they help each other because of that.

Give all people a chance

Bex Burn-Callender:

Tell me, then this is a neat segue into your decision to actively employee ex-offenders.

I know that you’ve faced quite a bit of criticism because people say, “I’m giving people my house keys to cut and yet they’ve come out of prison.”

Actually, it has been hugely successful.

Tell me about that strategy. What prompted it and how has it’s played out in your business?

Sir John Timpson:

Well, as said earlier, most things happened by luck or a light bulb moment. I think the two came together when my son, James, was on an evening out in prison, which sounds a bit strange.

It was a function held in a prison Thorn Cross near Warrington. Part of the evening was a meeting and there was some food, and there was a tour of the prison.

Each member of this meeting was taken out by one of the inmates.

James was lucky enough to be taken around by a guy called Matt who impressed James so much that he said, “Well, when you get out, here’s my card. Get in touch and I’ll give you a job.”

That was nearly 20 years ago, and Matt is still with us. He was the first.

I think James was chatting with his mother that night and she said, “If you can bring in one like that, you can bring in 10.”

And then we realised, this is a very sensible thing to do because at that time there were about 85,000 people in prison. No one was looking to recruit the people as they left.

We got a completely free run so we could pick all the good ones.

Also, alongside that, we learned that over 60% of people who leave prison reoffend within two years, but for those who have got a job, it’s somewhere less than 20%.

It all came together and was a really good thing to do.

We made a lot of mistakes to start with. James went around recruiting people and he was a little bit too ambitious.

He wanted to recruit some of the toughest customers. Some people are too naughty to be brought in, but there are plenty of people leaving prison because there is a range of things they have done, which got them there.

Loads have got the talent to go back into society. The crucial part of that is to get a job, but no one will give them a job because they got a prison record.

We thought the customers wouldn’t like it and discovered that wasn’t true.

It was pretty naive to think that someone’s going to be able to cut a key and then rob your house. It never ever happened.

I can’t see how it could happen.

Would our colleagues want to work alongside someone who just arrived from prison? We got that totally wrong because they’ve been really, really proud of what we’ve done.

They’re a crucial part of it.

The difficult thing for people leaving prison is not learning how to cut keys or repair watches or whatever. It’s to get their life back in on track.

They probably lost their partner, and can’t see their children anymore. They sometimes don’t have anywhere to live or have any money. If they have not got a job, they’re in trouble.

They are very, very grateful for the help they get from our colleagues.

Our colleagues in turn are very proud of what they see because in terms of that figure of 60% reoffending within two years, we have less than 3%.

We’ve been doing this for 20 years and a number of the people who joined us from prison are now area managers. They’re getting senior positions. One is an associate director.

They have gone on and proved that we made the right decision.

Provide employees to more than just a livelihood

Bex Burn-Callender:

You provide so much more than a job. This is more than a livelihood.

I know you call them colleagues, not staff. You do so much more for your people. With their birthday off—I have not spoken to you about this for a while, but there used to be these amazing holidays.

Your colleagues can go and stay and have a week in one of these holiday homes.

Tell me about some of the ways that you go over and above for your colleagues and changed the relationship between a business and the people who work for it.

Sir John Timpson:

Everyone always says they do their best for their people, and you should look after the best people in the business.

I think the first thing different that we did was that birthday-off thing. It’s not unique as other people have done it before, but we made it a special thing.

One year in 2003, when we worked out, it was our centenary.

I made the centenary date up actually. I said it was 1903, so we could have a centenary.

We gave everyone their birthday off at that time. It was such a success we just carried on every year since then.

That was the start.

Then we did the holiday homes. We’ve got 19 holiday homes scattered around the UK. It’s probably the most popular thing we do.

The other thing which we started nearly 10 years ago now is what we call our dreams come true.

We spend between half a million and a million pounds a year helping colleagues to make happen the thing that’s been their dream.

Sometimes it’s trips to Vegas and the wedding chapel. There were a lot of visits to relatives on the other side of the world they haven’t seen for years.

Sometimes they meet brothers or sisters never ever seen before. We’ve done IVF treatment for people successfully and a lot of dentistry work, which is transforming.

One of my favourites is paying for two divorces which I think combined made eight people very happy.

There’s no great system to this.

If someone has a dream and is a star colleague, it gets to us through the area manager and comes to James.

If he thinks a good idea, we do it. Some of them can be quite expensive and random. We like breaking the rules.

This is a business that has a culture, with rules implied by the culture. We like breaking the general way everyone else runs their business and dreams comes true as part of it.

We have a pet bereavement day, so if your pet dies you can have a day off.

The first day your children go to school, we say take the day off because it’s a very important day in your life.

We have a number of things like that.

We now have our own lottery every week. We pick a name, at random, out of the payroll, and that person gets a thousand pounds.

Bex Burn-Callender:

Wow! How long has that been running?

Sir John Timpson:

Well, we started the beginning of lockdown.

We very quickly had to stop it because of all that was going on, but we started again two or three months ago.

It’s a very important moment for people when they suddenly find that they get a visit from their boss and they find there are another thousand pounds going into their bank account.

It’s not very expensive when you think about it.

About £52,000 a year, which is quite small in terms of a business which has got to turnover 300 and something million, but it creates that sort of buzz that we like to have in the business.

Be open to new ideas

Bex Burn-Callender:

I love this idea of a sort of a no-rules culture, but that culture previously came from you.

A lot of the decisions you made were based on your common sense and your gut instinct.

Obviously, you’ve taken a step back and James now runs the show. How did you ensure a seamless transition of that culture, or has James put on a very different stamp on the business?

Can you just share how any listeners who might be going through a similar transition, how you made that work so beautifully?

Sir John Timpson:

It was 20 years ago when James became chief executive and three years before that, I had a non-executive director who knew the family very well called Patrick Farmer.

He got on well with James and me. Very importantly, got on very well with Alex, my wife.

That was a critical relationship.

He advised me at what pace we should give James the opportunity first to be a director and then to be chief executive.

That was very helpful. We’ve been very lucky.

From the start, I always recognised that James was a lot more talented than I ever was. He’s got much more rounded skills. He’s more ambitious and quicker, and younger.

I’m far too old to keep up with what’s going on now. It’s always been an easy relationship. It’s upside-down management.

Once I handed it over, he does the job. I was just there to help support and provide advice. I was so old that he could ask, “What happened when inflation was 26 point something per cent?”

He’s asking me that question now, because who knows where we go next.

It was very important that I let James get on with it. It’s his business now. That’s great because he’s turned it from whatever we had in around 300 shops into 2,000 and something.

He’s got lots and lots of ideas and lots of years ahead of him. That’s what you want from the chief executive.

There will be bad times

Bex Burn-Callender:

You mentioned inflation at 26%. I wanted to ask you because Timpson as a business has been through world wars, recessions, sky-high interest rates—all of these huge dramatic events.

I wanted to know, is there one period in the business’s history that you think was worse than the others?

Sir John Timpson:

Well, we’ve talked about the one thing, which was the biggest crisis we had, which was the boardroom bust off.

Having hit rock bottom, we managed to come back again. That was a major crisis.

Yet the 1970s, which was around that time, was very difficult when inflation did actually hit 26.8% in August 1975.

At that time, we were having to increase our prices four times a year to keep up.

You had to try and make sure that your increase in turnover and prices was at least slightly ahead of the increase in your wage bill.

The other thing was after we had done the buyout and found that the shoe shop business wasn’t working, was selling the shoe shops.

That was horrible announcing a decision to everybody knowing that a number of people are going to lose their jobs. No one wants to do that.

In the end, looking back, it was the right thing to do.

From then, we had some pretty dramatic decisions to make in terms of buying businesses.

The very critical purchase we made of a business early on in that phase, when we were only a 200-shop business, was buying another one, which had 110 shops.

My problem then was that Alex disagreed with me.

It’s the only time she’s admitted, right before she died, that she might have been wrong because it was a fantastically successful acquisition.

Her thinking was that she didn’t want me to do it.

She thought I was doing enough and did not want me to run a bigger business. She was worried about my health and that was in the back of her mind.

That was very tense.

When in a family business, you can’t unwrap the two. The family and the business are intertwined in quite a way, which is why it’s so important if you’ve got family members in the business that you have the ones in that are going to be successful.

We’ve been very lucky in that.

It’s OK to break a few rules

Bex Burn-Callender:

Can we talk a little bit about Alex?

Tell me a bit about her influence on you and your entrepreneurial style and your life and your business.

Sir John Timpson:

Alex made a very big difference to the way I viewed life. She was very, very different from most people.

She broke all the rules. She taught me to break the rules.

Although she was a foster carer and she was working with the local authority, she didn’t do it their way. She did it the way she thought it should be done.

We continued to have relationships with a family when foster children went back to the home.

In fact, there’s one family I think of where there’s a daughter and two brothers. I still see them. In fact, the daughter, the eldest, works in our business. She’s been working in the business for over 10 years. .

It was Alex’s version of common sense.

She knew it was right. That’s the way it was going to happen.

And if that meant going against what the social worker said or what the rules were, so be it. She would do it her way.

She was a force for good like that. She was totally wedded to the idea of looking after kids. That was her number one. She trained as a nursery nurse and was a nanny. She was working as a nanny when we met.

Children were right at the top of her agenda and she loved helping other people.

She spent her day sitting at the table in the little kitchen at the end of the table in charge of everything.

No one could get in the house without going past Alex. She had the phone at her side and a pad.

She was a sort of general helpline, a community service. People rang her up because they knew that she was going to have the answer, and be able to help.

She did not just give the answer, she went and did it.

She taught me to be a very different person.

At times, she was a challenge to be with because of her strength of personality. She never stayed in a meeting for more than an hour.

She thought half an hour was long enough and would walk out somewhere between half an hour, an hour. Instinctively she knew some right things for the business.

There was a time when we were going to float the shoe repair business in the early 1990s when everyone was doing that sort of thing.

Entrepreneurs were suddenly becoming very wealthy and we thought we’d do the same. Alex came into my study one day after and we said, “Look, you know you’re thinking of doing this float thing.”

She said, “You’re absolutely mad. You’ll never ever enjoy it. You’ll never get on with the city shareholders. If I were you, I’d just pick up the file and put it in the waste paper basket.”

And that’s what I did because she’s absolutely right.

If she hadn’t done that, we would’ve been out of business by the mid-1990s and never have grown into the business we are today.

She had these instinctive feelings.

The management buyout, she always believed was the right thing to do.

When my father got chucked out of the boardroom, she was determined that I was not going to sit back—we should keep our ambition should be to get back there and do what we’d always intended to do and run the business.

A very, very strong personality and much remembered. I still see a few of the children that we looked at, and they all remember Alex.

Bex Burn-Callender:

Of course. And she passed away, it was 2016, is that right?

Sir John Timpson:

It’s six years ago. Just over six years ago.

Change is inevitable

Bex Burn-Callender:

How did you as a businessman and an entrepreneur get on with things?

That’s a major influence in your life and it must have been a big change.

Sir John Timpson:

I was very lucky, as I had some friends. Some friends took me away on a holiday the next week. And we had a ball, which took my mind off it. I met lots of people.

That was following the advice a friend of mine gave me, who’d lost his wife a few years before that and said, “You’ve just got to get out and do things.

“If someone asked you out, the answer’s yes. Even if it’s something you didn’t particularly want to go to. If they’ve asked you out, say yes.”

Now I give that advice to everybody in the same situation.

The worst bit is going on holiday when everyone else on the plane has got someone with them and you are on your own. The first time you fill in the form to go into the next country and it says, marital status single.

At home, what shall I cook for myself? Those are the moments that you never totally get used to.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve had lots of fantastic friends who must have had to be very patient because I don’t think I’ve been that good at looking after myself.

Still, six years later, I still have a busy life and don’t spend so much time spent on the business these days. I still do enjoy the Telegraph column, which we did together at one time.

Going around doing the odd talk. Not just about business, but about horse racing, which was one of Alex’s loves. I wrote a book about that.

You look back and say, “Well, what would’ve happened if Alex had survived?” Life would’ve been very different.

That was not meant to be, so you have to deal with what comes your way in life. So far, I think we’ve not turned too badly.

Bex Burn-Callender:

That’s the way the cookie crumbles, unfortunately.

You mentioned interests and I know that you still have loads of projects on, even if you’re only spending one or two days a week on Timpson and at the office.

Tell me a bit about what’s occupying your mind and what kind of campaigns you are on at the moment.

Sir John Timpson:

I suppose the thing that is right at the back of my mind all the time is that this upside-down management way of organisation has been absolutely so fundamental in building up our business and the success we’ve got now.

We’ve got a business which is, I don’t know, 60, 70 times as profitable as it was when we started doing upside-down management. It’s all amazing how much it’s changed.

I think, why can’t work for other people?

I’m thinking particularly about the National Health Service.

I saw it happen in schools. I and the business have worked with some schools, one a primary school local to home and one or two others around the country.

This primary school has a headmaster there who took on upside-down management in all its shapes and completely transformed the place into a 10-school academy.

It can work elsewhere. It should work elsewhere.

I think children’s social services, which obviously I know quite a lot about, because of the social workers who we worked with.

I think it’s terrible that you’ve got less than 20% of a children’s social worker’s time spent with children and families because 80% of the time is spent on administration and complying with the policies and processes that are produced by people at head office.

That’s exactly the way I would not want to do it.

Every time anything happens such as a high-profile problem with a child, and we’ve had some very sad cases, another regulation comes out, so even more time is spent on paperwork and having to make sure that we’ve done it their way.

Even less time is available to be spent on children and families.

The more they try safeguarding and stop anyone from being able to blame the local authority or the government because that’s really who they’re safeguarding makes matters worse for the very people who they’re there to help.

I think we’ve got to get to the stage, not just in social services, but everywhere, where we stop having more regulations that tell people what to do,

In the end, management will purely make sure we are sticking to the rules and there’ll be no initiative, innovation and no one will actually run a business in the way I think is right, by giving people the opportunity to do what they think is right at the front line.

I’d love to see a complete change in what success looks like.

Now, in school, success unfortunately is about lead tables and about Ofsted inspections and making sure you stick to all the government rules.

I think success should be about taking a child and making sure they leave that school being the very best they can be to lead the rest of their life.

That’s what success should be about.

How they can add value to that child’s life so they can make the most of their ability.

It’s not about the classic measurements. I want to see more headteachers who are innovative, inspirational, and ignore the rules just like Alex did and do the right thing for the children in their care.

I’d like to see a very different world. I don’t like the way it’s going.

Everything has to be measured. Everything has to be by the book.

Well, you’re killing initiative and it doesn’t achieve what it should achieve. It was very expensive. If you run the social children’s services the way I would, you could help twice as many families and probably at half the cost.

Bex Burn-Callender:

John, you’ve got my vote. Let’s get you in there pronto.

Sir John Timpson:

It’s really frustrating because you do get people listening to what I sort of what I am saying.

It should be right to help the people at the front line help children and families and not get in the way by them having to fit then loads and loads of forms, which don’t actually make any difference.

They just do get in the way.

There’s, “I hear what you’re saying”, but they don’t do anything about it.

Everyone goes back because it’s safer to have lots of regulations and control than to take a chance and trust people.

If we’re not careful, we will have a whole world run by governments putting down regulations and computers making sure that we stick to them.

Bex Burn-Callender:

I think that’s a powerful message to leave: to make sure you don’t get in the way and don’t use control and process to actually try and to drive all the good and all the initiative out of your business and out of your life.

John, you are fabulous and I’ve loved talking to you.

Thank you so much for coming on the show and making this time for all of us. Thank you.

Sir John Timpson:

Well, it’s very nice meeting you again and I hope we can meet again soon.

Bex Burn-Callender:

Absolutely. I look forward to it. I’m so grateful to Sir John for coming to this show. I hope you enjoyed this chat as much as I did.

His words of wisdom appear every week on a Monday in the Telegraph and his written some marvellous books on his philosophy on running a business so check those out.

He’s not on social media, but do follow his son at James T Cobbler on Twitter. Any messages you sent him will be duly referred to John over the dinner table, I’m sure.

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