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SME Insights: Timpson

Updated: 3 days ago


This is the first in a series of INSIGHTS where we look at businesses around the world that do things a little bit differently, just to give you some ideas to think about in your business.


Role Model 1 – Timpson (UK) www.timpson.co.uk


Timpson is the UK and Ireland’s leading retail service provider of shoe repairs, key cutting, watch repairs, engraved personalized gifts like photo Zippo lighters and slate house signs, dry cleaning and assisted photo ID.


Timpson does things a bit differently.


Here is a quick synopsis:


  • Timpson started off as shoe repairers (cobblers) in 1960 and diversified into other products as a defense against declining shoe repair income in the late 1960’s.

  • Today, Timpson employs over 5,500 people in the UK and Ireland in 2,155 shops.

  • John Timpson, the Chairman, founder and owner believes in giving stellar customer service and his mantra is, “You cannot give great customer service by having rules or training courses or leaflets; you must trust the people who serve the customers with the freedom to do it in the way they know best.”

  • He implemented the ‘Upside Down’ organization structure with the customer facing staff at the top, and the Chairman at the bottom, reflecting his belief that the people who serve the customers should run the business and everyone else is there to help.

  • He empowered his ‘shop keepers’ totally:

He threw all the rules away except for two:


- You and the shop must ‘look the part’ – be smartly presented

- You must put money in the till

- He gave the ‘shop keepers’ total autonomy over their price list. Charge what you want – just make money!

- Use your initiative – if you have an idea – just go for it!

  • He found it was a great model, but it only worked with the right people, “Employing shoe repairers and key cutters didn’t work. Employing people with a great personality who I could teach to cut keys and repair shoes – did work.”

  • Recruitment was the next challenge. How could he recruit these positive personalities? He had area managers all over the country looking for staff, so to make it easy, he came up with concept of ‘Mr. Men’. Each interviewer had a sheet of paper on which there were Mr. Men images, Mr. Happy, Mrs. Slow, Mr. 5 o’clock, Mrs. Helpful, etc. They just had to tick the boxes that best fit the person sitting opposite them. They didn’t bother with CV’s or track record. He wanted personalities to run his shops.

  1. 50% of candidates come from existing team referrals, and they offer a staff reward scheme for introducing new candidates. “We have lots of friends and family working in the business and that is great.

  2. The next biggest source of candidates is HM Prisons. “Of the people who leave prison, 60% re-offend within two years unless they have a job, and then that drops to 19%. We found that around 85% of people in prison have the right personality, but no-one else is interested in them. We obviously select very carefully. But this works well.”

  3. Not everyone works out. The other strength John Timpson sees in his business is their enthusiasm to remove the people who aren’t performing. There is an ongoing and constant ‘cull’ of under-performing staff.

  • Management in Timpson’s cannot give orders. It is their job to select the right people for their team and then to look after them. Managers are expected to talk with and listen to their team, not just about the business, but about their personal lives as well. “If a high performer starts under-performing, you can be fairly sure it is because of personal and domestic problems. If you can help with those, you are helping them and Timpson’s at the same time. We have a Hardship Fund from which we lend to help people out of problems. We always get it back, we take away the worry, and we have even keener people working for us as a result.”

  • Timpson doesn’t have a marketing department. They don’t do PR. They do great internal communications reinforcing the culture at every opportunity.

Sir John Timpson today is the Chairman of Timpson’s, with his son James running the day to day operations as CEO. Sir John is a business personality, with a column in the Daily Telegraph, and plenty of public speaking engagements. He still visits shops at every opportunity. If you want to hear more, there are plenty of interviews on You Tube.



Andy Makeham has enjoyed a lifetime in software ‘business development’, as a programmer, implementor and entrepreneur. He has grown, bought and sold many business software companies and floated one on the public markets. He has worked with private and ‘private equity’ owners. Today Andy acts as a business development advisor to the software sector. In that capacity he is working with SOS Inventory.

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