Timpson - a name we’re all familiar with – their unobtrusive maroon signs part of the fabric of our high streets and travel experiences. Seems inevitable – a solid family business, a constant in a time of rapid change. Sounds dramatic – but when you look around and see gaps where Blockbusters, Woolworths and HMV used to be – being an established business is no longer a guarantee of unshakable foundations.
So looks can be deceiving, and success was by no means a certainty for Timpson, as John Timpson CBE explained at the Shared Services Forum’s recent annual conference in Manchester. In fact neither is natural progression to CEO, just because your father’s the Chairman. All boards and organisations contain different and sometimes conflicting personality types and one day in 1973 John Timpson’s father, Anthony found himself ousted by his uncle in a board room coup. John stayed with the firm and ten years later successfully led a management buyout.
With the growth of cheaper mass produced shoes, the shoe retail side of the business seemed to be in terminal decline – something which John recognised and he sold that side of the business for £15m, deciding instead to take advantage of the loss of traditional ironmongers from the high street to grow the key cutting business alongside shoe repairs. Something which is so ubiquitous now, it almost seems like an obvious fit – shoe repairs and key cutting – of course!
But at the time it was something which competitors just didn’t get and rivals – Minit UK among them, steered clear. Something they probably came to regret when struggling in 2003, Timpson bought their business (which they’d tried to buy some years previously) – for £1. Subsequent acquisitions and forays into digital photo shops, dry-cleaning and engraving have only added to the company’s success – but shrewd business acumen is only part of the story. The ultimate reason for the company’s success comes from the philosophy behind the business – and a lot of that can be summed up with one word. Trust.
John Timpson only has two rules that all employees must follow – 1) Look the part 2) Put the money in the till. Apart from that, employees are able to use what most organisations would call an unprecedented amount of free will. The philosophy behind that is that if you go through an employment process and make sure you employ the right people in the first place – then you need to trust that they have the ability to make the best decisions based on what they know and on their own branch environment.
To demonstrate the fact, John Timpson says that all staff, of any level, whether it’s their first day or the day they retire, have the ability to spend up to £500 settling a dispute – without asking or explaining anything to anyone. A system which he says has saved him an enormous amount of money over time. A complaint settled fast, is a complaint that disappears fast. The customer comes back and the member of staff feels trusted, supported and empowered to do the right thing.
And they’re trusted to do that “right thing” even when that employee is an ex-con. An ex prisoner cutting keys? Yes, says John, because ultimately if you give someone a chance when no-one else will – the likelihood is that that person will be extremely loyal. Nationally the re-offending rates of ex-prisoners without employment is 61%, in employment it drops to 19% - and within Timpson – it’s just 3%.
Initiatives like this, and what he terms, the company's "upside down management" approach, are just part of the working environment at Timpson, and the organisation has become something of a by-word for what it is to be a “ Best Company to Work for” – coming in the top 10 (amongst several other business awards) of the Sunday Times list every time it’s entered.
With seven holiday homes available free of charge to employees, a hardship fund for struggling employees, a weekly bonus scheme, flexible working arrangements, final salary pension schemes… and….you get your birthday off, it’s not difficult to see why.
Trust, support and giving people a chance is a philosophy which informs John’s personal life too, as he described how he and his wife have become adoptive parents and fostered more than 80 children – and even saved their local primary from going under.
So what’s next for a company soon to mark its 150th anniversary in business? Well – quite a lot so it seems. With shops already in more than 800 locations, there are 100 more shops due to open in the next six months, new deals with Tesco and Sainsbury’s, not to mention a new venture into mobile phones, it seems they won’t be hanging their boots up anytime soon.