TIMES are changing at Timpson. With a people- driven culture coursing through its veins, the £190m turnover family-owned business which has more than 1,000 shops in the UK and Ireland has come a long way from the humble cobbler kiosks that hammered out its original success.
Over the years Timpson has turned itself into a high street service chain by adding key cutting, engraving and watch repairs (they are now easily the UK market leader in each of these skills). More recently the company has added dry cleaning and photos.
Following the acquisition of Max Spielmann in 2008 and Snappy Snaps in January 2013, photo is now the biggest service in the Timpson portfolio. But chief executive James Timpson still looks ahead and like a lot of retailers is wondering what part the web will play in the future of Timpson.
“For most of our services we are a bit like the barbers,” said Timpson.
“You can’t get your haircut on the internet and it is pretty inconvenient to get shoes repaired or keys cut online. We have always had a demand for engraving and house signs online and sell a surprising number of shoelaces to internet customers but the total sales of our website amounts to little more than one of our average shops. Photo may change all that, we have a number of online competitors doing digital photos – we are a big player on the high street but have a lot to learn online.
“Whatever we do on the web must reflect our culture. The people values we have established throughout Timpson must be shared by the technical guys in IT. Running a website is very different from a high street shop but if it’s part of the same company it must be part of the same culture.”
Change won’t faze Timpson, nor will exploring a new environment. It was James who decided to take the bold step of giving real jobs to people released from prison. Timpson is now the UK’s most active recruiter of ex-offenders.
“It started 11 years ago when I employed Matt, who now manages one of our shops. Lots of our branches are run by people who spent time in prison,” he continued.
“Providing a job dramatically reduces the likelihood of re-offending but the main reason we recruit from prison is because we have found some really talented people. With few other employers interested, we get the pick of a really good bunch.
“I’m not prejudiced against where they came from or what they did. Other companies that automatically avoid employing someone who has been in prison are overlooking some fantastic people who would make a big difference to their business. If they don’t want them I will have them.
“Here’s an interesting statistic for you – six of our shops are run by people who are still in prison – they are released to work each day and go back to prison every night.”
When it comes to leadership and developing the philosophy that has defined the family business for nearly 150 years, early advice came in the form of a book ‘Dear James’ written in 2000 by dad and company chairman John Timpson CBE. The book passes on lessons learned during three decades as chief executive.
“I have learnt a lot from my dad,” added Timpson. “We still work closely together and I hope these days we learn a lot from each other. Most of management is common sense, when you are running a business it seems natural and normal but it is good to write down what works and what doesn’t work – ‘Dear James’ provided plenty of vital tips.”
The Timpson culture is defined by what they call ‘Upside Down Management’, which sees customer facing members of the team treated as the most important people in the business.
No-one is referred to as an employee, everyone is called a colleague. There is no room for even the most talented ‘big shots’.
Timpson added: “The key to leadership is to pick the right people, especially those executives who help you manage the day-to-day business. I have always found it best to promote from within, people I know get it. They get the culture.
“The culture must never be compromised, it can’t be diluted. The best companies to work for have been well represented amongst the winners during this recession.
“The strongest businesses have a very strong culture.
“Upside Down Management is at the heart of our culture. We trust our branch colleagues with the freedom to serve customers the way they know best. We have found it is the only way to deliver great service, managers are there to help and support. We don’t want managers who get in the way by telling people what to do.”
Determined to get across his personal touch, Timpson spends four days each week visiting branches dotted around the UK and Ireland.
“I don’t carry around a clipboard and a check list. I visit shops, usually unannounced, to talk to our colleagues, check our culture is working and continue a constant search for ideas.
“I really do spend four days a week on the road. Other retail leaders say they never get round their shops enough. Perhaps they think I don’t go to the office enough but I do spend most of my time where we make the money. “There are lots of little things that matter which we call our ‘Magic Dust’. They create our culture because they show how much we care for our colleagues.
“We have a hardship fund to help colleagues through a financial crisis, they can stay for free at our seven holiday homes and everyone at Timpson has an extra day off on their birthday. I send lots of hand written letters – after a record week, the birth of a baby, a relative passing away or even when someone leaves and I want them to come back. A personal handwritten letter is so much better than an email.
“It is important to find a way to make the personal touch with every colleague. When we had only 145 shops, we were worried that when we grew to 200 we would lose touch. We had to adapt a bit but have discovered, now we have over 1,000 branches, it is still possible to be leaders with the personal touch.
“It makes a big difference to see colleagues as individuals, not just a number on the payroll, and it is very important for them to know who they work for and see that I actually am a real person.”