Here's the first of our 'Building Better Business' series of articles and interviews.

We'll be featuring brilliant business leaders and innovative thinkers focusing on building better businesses... and a better world!

James Timpson OBE, is the Chief Executive of Timpson, a successful British multinational retailer. Timpsons is a family business with 1,700+ shops. Its 5,500 employees specialise in shoe repairs, key cutting, locksmith services, dry cleaning, mobile phone repairs, jewellery, watch repair and many other services.

Timpsons are bucking the UK high street trend as a growth business.

James' passion and enthusiasm for business, people, his team and making an impact on the wider community is truly infectious. Our energising conversation covered management style, trust, kindness, philanthropy, employing ex-offenders, training and the exciting opportunities in the North West of England.

We hope you enjoy this candid interview and that you are inspired by Timpson's approach to building a better business.

What is 'Upside Down Management'?

"Our whole business is based on a culture of trust and kindness."

"I work on the principle that you are much better off running a business based on trust rather than running a business based on control. And I’m also of the view that no one is more important than anybody else.

So the best way to run a business is to have very few rules and to trust people to help you run the business.

We’re all about having shops where customers get really good customer service. When I first started out I read lots of books, wrote to loads of people running businesses and asked if I could follow them around for the day.

Pretty much all of them said yes and I spent a lot of time working in our shops serving customers and the things that really worked were basically what has become ‘Upside Down Management’.

Most businesses have a hierarchy where the people who actually serve customers and put money in the till, raise invoices and drive four wheel trucks have to follow hundreds of rules every day and if they don't they get into trouble. I don't think that is the best way to run a business.

The most important people in the business, the ones who need all the support, are those who serve customers and put money in the till. And it’s everyone else’s job to do as well as they can.

Our whole business is based on a culture of trust and kindness.

When we talk about trust we only have two rules, which are #1 you put the money in the till and #2 you look the part.

Everything else is a guideline… and guidelines are there to be broken!"

How do you quantify whether your Upside Down Management approach is working?

"Very few people leave a job because of money. Most people leave a job because they are not happy with their boss and they are not happy with the culture.

Even if we weren’t a family business I would run it like a family business.

I’ve got five and a half thousand colleagues, who are all part of my own family, and I treat them as if they were part of my family -  which is through kindness.

We run the business commercially. We are very commercial, but want to amaze them as an employer and we want to be the best company they've ever worked for.
We have lots of ways of saying thank you and looking after people in good times and bad times, so people feel very loyal to the business. This means that they give very good customer service, they don't leave and they go with us through the good decisions we make, and the bad decisions we make.

There are a number of benefits that we offer - in fact we probably have more benefits than any one else - and it's the best money we spend!

For example, I’ve just been to one of our shops and I’ve never met the colleague before. He was a really nice guy and he said, “I just want to say thank you very much because you bought me a car last week and it has made a massive difference.” His fuel costs are lower, he was having loads of problems getting to work because his Ford Focus kept on breaking down…. and he said and the kids absolutely love it, so that's worth it too! I know from a commercial sense that I will get my money back again.

We have a colleague survey every year called the ‘Happy Index’, which is just one question, “on a scale of 1-10 how happy are you with your area team or head of department or boss?”.  It invites colleagues to write a comment if they want and that's it that's all we do. That helps us judge how well we are doing.

Out of five and a half thousand people, there’s always a few who are not happy, but that's ok".

You call Timpsons ‘retail as a service’. What can service businesses such as digital, creative and communications agencies learn from Timpson’s approach?

"We have been fortunate that virtually everything we do can’t be done on the Internet, so that’s been lucky!

We want to reach the potential for every shop and that’s our focus. What we’re trying to do is provide more and more services from our colleagues - we’re always trying to find more things that we can add on as extras.

If you take our Stratford Westfield shop, it’s really well run and they’re reaching their potential every week, but we’re always looking for shops that don’t and then we get the right colleagues into that shop to help them -  that's how we make money and drive the business.

We have a thing called 'Just say yes', so, for example, if a customer comes in a says: “my vacuum cleaner is broken. Can you repair it?”,  we say: “I’ve never done it before but I’ll have a go!”

Timpson employees like Ali give exceptional customer service
James Timpson's colleagues such as Ali from Stratford Westfield have a can-do attitude and provide exceptional customer service

Many service businesses, such as digital, marketing and PR agencies often say, “This is what we do and this is what we don’t do.” We simply don't do that,  we have a go… and that's how we innovate.

You pioneered recruiting ex-offenders. Was it difficult to get initial buy-in and to roll out the programme?

"It wasn’t difficult because I’m the boss and I didn't tell anybody!!!!

When I did tell everybody I got their buy-in because the people I managed to find were really good. Some of my colleagues have friends or relatives that have been to prison, so it’s not something that is alien to them."

Have there been any bumps in the road?

"Oh yes!  Loads! Some people have done really well… and then the wheels come off.

The wheels come off because of either on-going issues with alcohol or drugs, dysfunctional relationships or mental health problems.

We can solve lots of problems for people by giving them a job, but there are some things that unfortunately we can’t solve.

Beyond offering them a job, do you give colleagues any wellbeing support?

"Yeah we do a lot. We care for them, but we don't want to be too soft. Where we’ve been too soft in the past it doesn't work.

We help people financially in the first few months, you’ll get rent deposits down and that sort of thing to get going, but we don't want to treat them any differently to any one else because if you do it doesn't seem to work."

What would you say to businesses considering copying your recruitment strategy of employing ex-offenders?

"If you are happy to take money off a customer who has been to prison surely you should be happy to employ someone who has been to prison!

"I’m a really commercial person and the reason why I recruit people from prison is because I want the best people to work in our business.

What I’ve learnt is that some of those best people happen to be in prison and they find it very difficult to find a job. When you do give them a job they become the most loyal hardworking honest people you've got.

Some people, who own larger businesses, will be employing people that have criminal convictions, but they’ve probably lied on their application, so they simply don't know about it.

I have a view which is if you are happy to take money off a customer who has been to prison surely you should be happy to employ someone who has been to prison!

I don't see anywhere in your terms and conditions that say if you have been to prison we’re not going to take your money.

I would like to add a point about selection.

We don't employ sex offenders, we don't employ people who have lots of mental health issues, we don't employ people who don’t want a job - we’re not just walking into prisons taking anybody,  we are very selective."

Some organisations approach corporate social responsibility as a tickbox exercise. How would you convince them to properly invest in helping others and live out values of trust and kindness?

"I think you need to do it because it’s what business is about.

If your business is just about making money it’s hollow and people- especially Millennials -  are far more engaged with businesses which have social purpose rather those that are just about making money."

Are there other areas of philanthropy or social good that interest you and the board at Timpson?

"My dad is interested in fostering and adoption.

I’m interested in the whole prison bit, but actually for me, philanthropy starts at home - which is supporting colleagues.

Most of our work you don't see because it is very low level and its helping colleagues with financial issues, mental health support, sending them on a holiday because they’ve had a difficult time… whatever it is. It is that sort of support which really reinforces the culture, and helps the people who help us.

I do worry that lots of companies you see give to charity, but don't look after the people who make that money in the first place."

There’s an imbalance between the massive, profitable tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon and those who are the most vulnerable in society. What would you like to see change? What role should they play in civil society?

"From a corporate point of view I paid more Corporation Tax last year in the UK than Amazon did!"

"Let’s take Amazon as an example.  Amazon employs tens of thousands of people through agencies and they pay minimum wage. They have to get searched by security probably 4 or 5 times a day. For the time it takes from when the bell goes when they have a shift break, some of them have to walk for 7 to 8 minutes then they have to queue for the toilet then they have to go straight back to work without having a proper break.

From a corporate point of view I paid more Corporation Tax last year in the UK than Amazon did!

Facebook, whilst they pay people good wages and they recruit a lot of people, I still think that they just don't pay the tax.

Their colleagues drive on the road to get to work. If they’re poorly they go to hospital and their kids go to school, so surely it should be paid for by companies paying the tax.

We helped set up a charity with Julian Richer, founder of Richer Sounds, called TaxwatchUK which basically does all the background research on how large companies working in the UK are ‘cooking the books’, and to give government policy recommendations to stop it.

There is also a book called ‘Low Wage Britain’ that I’d recommend everyone reads."

What do you and your team look for in partners and suppliers?

"We like suppliers who are honest, who tell us what’s happening in the industry and we like suppliers who like to know our business and want to know our business.

So when a supplier writes to me asking whether they can come and spend a day working in one of our shops, its fantastic! They’re going to be ones we want to work with. It is amazing how few do."

Are you a fan of management books and podcasts?

"I don’t do podcasts - I read books!

In fact I’m just reading a new one that someone sent me yesterday called 'Bad Bosses' by a guy called David Smith. It is brilliant so far and I’m really enjoying it!

My favourite ones over the years are ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight - really interesting. I love ‘The Richer Way – How to get the best out of people’ by Julian Richer - that's a really important book . I read his book called ‘The Ethical Capitalist’ recently.

There is a book called ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler, which is more than 25 years old and it’s really good. The ‘Nordstrom Way’ is a great book about customer service.

I’m a big fan of books read lots of books!"

Tell us about your plans for the Timpson University you are opening in Wythenshawe?

"Never underestimate how important it is for someone to learn new skills.

If you are the leader of the business, you just assume that people need technical skills but actually what people want is to learn how to be a leader. A lot of people don't know how to do it.

So we decided to build our University, which is basically a big training centre to do all the non-practical stuff.

If you want to learn how to repair a watch we do that in the shop, but how we care for colleagues, how we train to have difficult conversations, how we recruit, how we do all that sort of stuff is done out of the shops and that's why we set up the University."

Is it for Timpson employees only?

"The first year is going to be for colleagues.  After then we are going to open it up for others who want to come and join us. I think what we will do is for local charities it will be free, for other people they can pay a bit…but it won’t be much."

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities that you see for businesses in the North West of England at present?

"What we don't want is London to become where everything happens. It should be far more equal."

"Let's take Liverpool for example, Liverpool doesn't have many big businesses – it has lots of small start-ups but very few managed to get to be scalable. so that is an interesting challenge.

Infrastructure is a massive challenge the roads and the rail is just sh*t. It’s terrible.

Everybody in London that thinks that London traffic is bad but it is terrible in the North West!

If I want to get a train from Chester to Leeds it takes me an hour and fifty minutes and it’s 60 miles the distance from Manchester to Leeds is shorter than the whole of the Piccadilly line on the London Underground! Transport is the major problem.

Manchester is booming. Manchester is incredibly confident and is quite edgy, but for many years no one wanted to live there. Now everybody wants to live in Manchester. It’s an amazing place. Very buzzy.

What we don't want is London to become where everything happens. It should be far more equal."

So what could happen up in the North West to start to address that lack of equality?

"Infrastructure, it’s all about infrastructure. Government departments should be moving out of London. It’s ridiculous having them in London."

One final question James. Fill in the blank. "If I didn't do this job, I'd__________"

"Be a farmer!"

[read more about The Timpson Foundation here]

Read more 'Better Business' interviews

Sarah Brown, is the founder and CEO of Pai Skincare, a  brand that began in 2007 in a garage in South Acton, West London that now exports to over 50 countries worldwide.  

'Pai' is a Maori word meaning good. Find out how Sarah embeds the 'Pai' philosophy across the brand and the business in our next Better Business interview.


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