Timpson CEO: Our business shouldn’t exist anymore

A culture of kindness, operating with two golden rules and celebrating failure are the secrets to retail survival, says CEO James Timpson.

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James Timpson admits his business shouldn’t exist anymore. The company, which spans Timpson, Snappy Snaps, Max Spielmann and Johnsons The Cleaners, has seen virtually all its competitors go bust.

“We’ve managed to keep going by having this desire just to survive and wanting to survive by being really good at what we do, making sure we fill the business with amazing people and letting them get on with it,” said Timpson, speaking at the MRS Conference yesterday (17 March).

“It’s also really diversification. When I first joined the business, we did a lot of shoe repairs, we don’t do a lot of that now. We did a little bit of key cutting. We did a little bit of scratching on pet tags. And we were the biggest seller of tights in the country and wicker baskets.”

Over the years being a private, family firm has made a big difference, as has the business’s readiness to embrace change, a direction driven by the Timpson CEO’s own personality.

There is an ambition to trial new ideas and not get hung up on costs in the initial phase. Starting small is crucial, said Timpson, who is wary of companies launching new products or services at scale without proper testing. In his experience it takes three years to get a concept right.

We make money out of being very simple and not being a complex business, so it’s that balance between, how do you diversify while keeping the simplicity?

James Timpson, Timpson

“It’s not like we’re betting the farm every time we do something. That is a really important fact. We’ve got the confidence to do it, because we know if it goes wrong it’s ok,” he explained.

“Most of the mistakes that are made are mine. I’m quite happy to tell everyone ‘I made a balls up of that.’ We opened up a shop recently and I thought it would be fine and it’s been crap. Hands up, I’ll sort it out. When we make a mistake, I’m happy to fail fast and if it doesn’t work don’t keep trying to put lipstick on a pig, as they say.”

The business chooses to celebrate failure because it means the team know what won’t work. However, when a new idea turns out to be a success they go after it full throttle.

An example is phone repairs. After seeing shops springing up specialising in phone repairs, Timpson convened a team of colleagues to explore the idea, bought some kit and asked staff to have a go rolling the service out.

“I really like copying people, so I’m happy to be the follower not the leader on these sorts of things,” he explained.

The organisation prides itself at being good at high margin services that cannot be done online and has made the active decision not to promote anyone else’s brands beside its own.

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For any new product to be accepted, it must be high margin, push the own brand and be approved by staff.

Describing himself as the “most miserable chief exec”, Timpson explained he regularly rejects ideas he feels will pull the company away from the simplicity of its business model.

“Every week we’ll have someone coming to us wanting to sell a product and they always say if you sell one of our products in your shop every week we’ll make £1m profit. What they don’t understand is the complication that creates, the lack of purity in what we’re trying to do,” said Timpson.

“We make money out of being very simple and not being a complex business, so it’s that balance between, how do you diversify while keeping the simplicity? That’s hard.”

Upside down management

There are three areas of the business Timpson does not delegate on – which shops the company opens, capital expenditure and strategy.

Beyond those key elements, he readily welcomes crowdsourced ideas from across the business, an approach central to his ‘upside down’ leadership style. Timpson explained this approach is driven by the personalities of himself and his father – chairman Sir John Timpson – as well as commercial acumen proving this is the best way to make money.

The in-store colleagues have complete authority to do whatever they think is right to offer an amazing service, from running with new ideas, to offering discounts. This mentality was informed by Timpson’s first experiences of working in store.

“When I first joined the business properly after university, every shop I worked in I could put 50% on the sales. The reason wasn’t because I was a really good shoe repairer or key cutter, it’s because I could break all these rules that had been put in place,” he explained.

“It meant all the really good people, the vast majority of people, had to restrict what they could do because of all these stupid rules. Because I was the boss’s son, I could get away with it and I could give discounts, promotions, I could do whatever I wanted.”

Inspired to empower staff, Timpson also read books and visited other companies operating with similar values based on trust and kindness. Getting the upside down approach to bed-in took time. He believes change in general takes three years to be accepted in business, while culture change takes at least five years.

If you’re a nine out of 10 colleague and you’ve got to work with someone who’s six out of 10, you won’t enjoy your job.

James Timpson, Timpson

“There are some people with traditional values of command and control that don’t like it and lots of companies that have an inbuilt desire to control and tell people what to do. You can’t have those kinds of people. They might be lovely people, but they don’t work in our kind of culture,” Timpson said.

Kindness is integral to upside down management, he explained. When it comes to hiring leaders, kindness is one of the key attributes Timpson looks for. This is also expressed through how the business measures success. Whereas most businesses measure profit and margins, Timpson measures colleague happiness.

The company runs a weekly morale survey for every colleague and an annual ‘Happy Index’. Everyone in the business gets their birthday off, as well as an extra day’s leave when they become a grandparent, or their child has their first day at school. Staff are also given pet bereavement days.

“You’ll have lots of financial reasons where people say: ‘Is that money well spent?’. It’s the best money you spend if it backs up your values and your culture,” said Timpson. “There’s no point doing it if that’s not in your values or culture. For us it’s really important and we don’t care how much it costs.”

These values played out during the pandemic, when all the company’s shops were closed. Timpson kept staff on 100% pay throughout the crisis, with all employee benefits continuing. It may have cost the business millions, but it was the right thing to do, said Timpson.

He does not, however, see any conflict in being a kind employer with high standards. Timpson said he only wants his “amazing colleagues” to work with equally amazing people and if they don’t, he considers himself to have failed.

“The way we look at it is, we want people who have an amazing personality and the way we describe them is an eight, nine or 10 out of 10. Ideally, we want the nines and 10s out of 10, but eight is good enough and we can help them improve,” he stated.

“If you’re a nine out of 10 colleague and you’ve got to work with someone who’s six out of 10, you won’t enjoy your job. It’ll cost you commission and things will start to go wrong. We are absolutely ruthless in making sure that people who aren’t amazing find themselves in a business elsewhere.”

This ethos applies to Timpson’s work as chair of the Prison Reform Trust. His business employs more than 600 ex-offenders, equivalent to 10% of total staff.

He recalled being on a tour of an open prison and being approached by a prisoner with a “buzzy personality” who asked if the chain had any jobs on offer. Timpson gave the man his card and promised to give him a job on his release. The ex-offender still works with the business today.

“For about six months I’d go around the local prisons in the North West, walking the wings, looking for sparky prisoners. Just chatting to them and giving them my business card. I ended up getting about 20 ex-offenders, or we call them foundation colleagues, and went from there,” Timpson explained.

Employees recruited from prison tend to stay with the business longer, are more honest and more loyal, he added, with several holding senior roles.

The golden rules

The company seeks to operate with a flattened hierarchy. While Timpson accepts the firm needs people to manage, he is adamant anyone who thinks they are better than anyone else can find a job elsewhere.

There are only two rules for staff. One is to put money in the till and the other is to look the part, upholding standards.

“The rest anyone can do whatever they want, there are no rules. All our training is around the technical skills you need to do the job, but also the culture and the way we do it. This is where the trust and the no rules come in,” Timpson explained.

The business operates a residential training course, so once the 16-week apprenticeship is complete, new recruits visit the office for two days of “cultural indoctrination”.

Most of the mistakes that are made are mine. I’m quite happy to tell everyone ‘I made a balls up of that.’

James Timpson, Timpson

From a leadership perspective, Timpson spends two days a week visiting shops looking for successful ideas that can be replicated in other stores.

“What amazes me when I speak to other retail chief execs is they always say: ‘I don’t spend enough time in the shops’. They go on Friday afternoon and see a few shops, but I don’t think it works well like that,” Timpson argued.

When it comes to acquisitions, the business takes a similar ‘boots on the ground’ approach. Prior to the purchase of watch repair chain Watch Lab, the team spent time travelling around stores and meeting customers to understand how the business operated.

The Timpson CEO picks up ideas “all the time”, spending 20%-30% of his time looking at other companies. A friend of Richer Sounds boss Julian Richer, Timpson is also part of a business group that meets up once a month and regularly speaks to friends, as well as his father, for advice on issues such as the impending inflation crisis.

Reflecting on lessons learned from the pandemic, Timpson has seen renewed value in holding cash reserves and cutting unnecessary costs. He is also readying for further diversification.

“If you were to take our core services of shoe repairs, dry cleaning and photo printing. Those are the core parts of our business, all of them in decline. What do we do? What we do is we build up the other parts of the business,” Timpson explained.

This will likely involve more personalisation and gifting in the photoshops, and pushing laundry services in dry cleaning, including a tie up Airbnb. For the Timpson chain, which is set to open 55 new shops this year, high street retail is at the heart of the plan.

“All the time we’re breaking down the bits of the business to see what we can do to increase it, while understanding that there are certain bits that are always doing rubbish,” Timpson concluded.



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