Great service comes from doing things upside down – Interview with John Timpson


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Today’s interview is with John Timpson CBE, Chairman of Timpson’s the UK and Ireland’s leading retail service provider of shoe repairs, key cutting, watch repairs, engraved personalised gifts, dry cleaning and assisted photo ID. They are also the UK’s fastest growing specialist locksmith service.

After hearing John speak at a recent conference, I asked him if he would be willing to be interviewed for my podcast series. John talks to me today about the Timpson story, upside down management, customer service and ex-offenders.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – 65% of leaders believe that it’s not up to them to tackle customer centricity – Interview with Alison Esse of The Storytellers – and is number 180 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to their customers.

Here’s the highlights of my interview with John:

  • Timpson’s is a predominantly UK multi-service business that operates on the high street and in supermarkets.
  • Started in 1865 as a shoe making business by William Timpson, the business remained family owned until 1972 when John’s father Anthony was ousted as chairman by his uncle Geoffrey and the business was sold to United Drapery Stores.
  • In 1983, John lead a management buyout of Timpson from then owners Hanson Trust plc and eventually acquired all of the shares in 1991 returning the business to full family ownership.
  • Whilst the business may have started in shoe making and the selling of shoes, Timpson no longer sells or makes shoes and the majority of the business is currently made up of shoe repairs and key cutting. However, they also repair phones, engrave almost anything and repair watches too.
  • They have consistently grown the business through acquisition.
  • I heard John speak at a recent conference (Employee Engagement Summit) where he was doing the keynote (you can watch it here). I was there as I was due to speak in the afternoon (You can see my talk here, if you like)
  • In his talk, John talked about Upside Down Management, which he wrote about in a similarly titled book published in 2010.
  • Upside Down Management comes from John’s search for how they could do things better. However, it all started when an acquisition target of theirs turned into a competitor.
  • ‘Against that, all you can do is be bloody good at doing the job’. What that means in practical terms is that colleagues in the shops have to focus on doing a good technical job but also that customers leave happy enough to come back again.
  • That led John to realise that the only way to to create a fantastic level of service was not through a set of rules or policies or notices in the back room but to trust colleagues that serve the customer to do it the way that they want.
  • John learned this 3 years before when he read about Nordstrom’s business and approach to customer service. That book also had an upside down organisational chart in the centre of the book that made the point that the people who really made the money and ran the business are the people that serve customers. Everyone else working in the business are there to support them in doing their job.
  • The transition to this style of business wasn’t easy and it took 5 years to get it going. Middle management didn’t really get it initially as they liked telling people what to do. But, they did get it in the end.
  • Running a business following upside down management principles is much more interesting and successful.
  • However, their approach has spread to not only customer serving colleagues but to everyone in the business where everyone is trusted to do their job the way that they want to.
  • The business is growing rapidly: it had 140 shops in 1987 and that number has now grown to 1564 (including 150 new dry-cleaning stores just acquired from Morrisons).
  • In order to gain trust following an acquisition it’s more effective to demonstrate how you do things rather than tell people how you will do things. That’s the best way to win trust.
  • To make their acquisitions work they put their own area managers into acquired businesses. Each of those area managers started life as an apprentice with Timpson so they have been ’brought up’ the Timpson way.
  • Everyone at Timpson starts as an apprentice (at the bottom). They don’t hire any ‘outsiders’ into senior positions.
  • One colleague who joined the business as a result of the acquisition of Tesco’s photo business two years ago put it very well when she said “I’ve been with Tesco’s for 15 years and for the last two years I’ve been so happy as I am trusted to get on with it. Until two years ago, I didn’t know what I was missing’.
  • Timpson only hire people that have the right personality (attitude is part of personality).
  • Upside Management does not work without the right personalities.
  • Timpson use cartoon visuals developed by John along the lines of the Mister Men characters to help in their recruitment/interview assessment.
  • In the end all that matters is what you think of that person and what you think your people/team will think of that person.
  • Appraisals are an enormous waste of time.
  • John has similar views about risk assessments and prefers every 2-3 years to dream up disaster scenarios and explore them by telling a story about them i.e. what would happen if one of their senior people was in a plane crash. That brings it to life and helps people engage with it and talk about how they would deal with it much better than a high score on a risk assessment.
  • In addition, John does the same sort of thing every few years with his long-term forward planning. The next one he is die to write soon will be the Chairman’s Report 2035. That allows him to let his imagination run riot with all sorts of scenarios and stories around what the business could look like in 15 to 20 years time.
  • Traditional forward planning is only an extrapolation of existing figures and as long as revenues go up faster than costs then everything will be ok. But, it doesn’t take care of gamechangers.
  • Timpson doesn’t have a marketing department.
  • Timpson is doing inspiring work and having tremendously success with it’s employment of ex-offenders programme.
  • They got into it by chance when James, the current CEO and John’s son, was visiting a prison for another reason and the guy that was showing him round impressed James so much that he gave him his business card and said ‘when you get out, give me a ring and I’ll give you a job’.
  • That person, Matt, is still with the business.
  • James, John and his late wife, Alex, decided this was something they should continue with when they found out that 60% of people that come out of prison re-offend within 2 years but that drops to 19% if they have a job.
  • They’ve now been running this programme for 13 years and they have made lots of mistakes along the way.
  • They have learned that they are much better off running training workshops in and recruiting from open prisons.
  • What they have found is that the best way to start people working for them is to start them whilst they are still in prison and on ROTL (released on temporary license) during the day.
  • They follow the same and are subject to the same recruitment process as any one else. They are still on the look out for personalities (Mr Smart, Mr Keen, Mr Helpful…).
  • But this approach works and some of their colleagues have made it to store managers whilst still in prison.
  • They were, however, worried when they started about how generous their other colleagues would be with their time and what they and their customers would think of their new colleagues. But, all is well.
  • They have also realised how difficult it is for people coming out of prison and so it is no wonder that they re-offend. For many of them, their sentence really starts when they leave prison.
  • Therefore, Timpson’s see their role as not just about teaching them to repair shoes or cut keys but also to help them find new homes, borrow money….to effectively get their life back on track.
  • They now have around 350 people (approx 10% of their workforce) that are ex-offenders and their rate of re-offending is 3% as compared to the 60% and 19%. Timpson is the largest employer of ex-offenders in the UK.
  • As a result of their scheme, they now have 2 Area Managers that joined them from prison and the person that now runs the scheme joined them from prison too.
  • Whilst their colleagues and their customers have been very receptive, they find it difficult to get other businesses to embrace this sort of scheme.
  • This initiative is being championed by James who also Chairman of The Prison Reform Trust and is involved with developing the new prison reforms with the Ministry of Justice.
  • John says that Timpson’s has loads of data and figures but he doesn’t pay that much attention to them. He knows what they are saying and that they wouldn’t tell him much that he doesn’t know. He spends around 2 days a week going round shops talking to people.
  • Before acquiring the Morrison’s dry-cleaning business, John visited around 70 of the 150 stores/concessions before completing the deal.
  • Figures only come to life when you can see the place and the place that they represent.
  • You don’t make money out of a process.
  • Management’s role is not to get people to stick to a process.
  • People make money not processes.
  • Management’s role is to pick the right personalities, to get rid of the personalities that are no good, to let people get on with it and do everything possible (clearing obstacles) to help them create the best possible result.
  • Timpson Area Managers get involved with all sorts of colleague issues including bereavement and divorce. Their view is that clearing obstacles and making things easy for people applies just as much to their colleagues home life as it does to their work.
  • One of the fastest growing parts of Timpson’s business is mobile phone repairs.
  • Whilst it is not clear what they will be doing in 20 years time, they know they will have to adapt. But, they do know that they will remain true to their culture, how they pick people and that they will always be about people providing a service face to face on the high street or in supermarket concessions.
  • One of the most exciting areas that they are looking into and getting involved with is Digital Identity and associated services, particularly around validation, storage and access.
  • Once of the nicest things ever, apart from getting married, that happened to John recently was that he was asked to appear on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. The show went out over the Easter weekend and, as a result, droves of people came into the shops over the next week saying that they had heard John on the radio.
  • The only real piece of advertising that Timpson have ever done is buy a scoreboard for Manchester City Football Club (It has Timpson’s name on it) as John couldn’t see the scoreboard when he went to matches.
  • John would like to encourage people in business to do things differently, trust your people and follow their lead and consider employing ex-offenders.
  • Look out for John’s new book due out in November this year called: How To Make A Small Fortune – The Diary Of A Racehorse Owner’s Husband. It’s the story of the 13 years that his wife owned racehorses and he was the ‘financial director’.

About John (taken from his bio on the Timpson’s website)

John TimpsonJohn Timpson was born in 1943 and was educated at Oundle and Nottingham University. After a six month Graduate Training Scheme with C & J Clark at Street, he joined the family footwear business William Timpson Limited, becoming 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 he 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 the shoe repairing and key cutting business, which he has diversified into engraving, watch repairs, dry cleaning and photo processing.

In September 1995 he acquired the 120 shop Automagic chain and in April 2003 bought Minit UK which added another 200 shoe repair shops. In June 2008 the company acquired over 40 Sainsbury concessions, trading as Persil Services, and in December 2008 bought 187 shops branded Klick and Max Spielmann. Timpson now has over 1,400 branches nationwide with a turnover of £150m and profits of over £10m. It is a private business wholly owned by John Timpson and his family.

He is a Trustee at Uppingham School and until its merger with the NSPCC was a trustee of ChildLine. He has also been Chair of the Governors at Brookway High School, Wythenshawe, Delamere Primary School, Cheshire and Terra Nova School, Jodrell Bank. In 2000 he wrote a book ‘Dear James,’ which passes on to his son the lessons learned in 30 years as a Chief Executive. For 10 years he has had his own column under the name ‘Timpo’ in the magazine Real Business and is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph.

John is in demand for an increasing number of speaking engagements talking about his unique business style which he calls ‘Upside-down Management.’ In 2004 he was awarded the CBE in the Birthday Honours List for Services to the Retail Sector. Mr Timpson’s main leisure interests outside the business are connected with sport, he regularly plays Tennis, Golf and Real Tennis.

Find out more about Upside Down Management and your nearest Timpson shop via their website Also, do say Hi to them and CEO James on Twitter @CobblerCare and @JamesTCobbler.

Photo Credit: Kake . via Compfight cc

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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