Trust your staff to succeed, maverick entrepreneur tells business summit

15 Nov 2017

Empowering and trusting staff is the way to run a successful business, maverick entrepreneur Sir John Timpson told the South’s business leaders at the Solent Business Growth Summit 2017.

Keynote speaker Sir John, who heads the giant, independent Timpson group with 1,940 shops and more than 5,000 staff, said his unique, ‘upside down management’ style had paid dividends with the business achieving a £350m turnover from a core of shoe repairs and key cutting.

He was speaking at the Ageas Bowl’s Hilton Hotel, near Southampton in the fourth such breakfast event promoting business growth and backed by four of the area’s big firms with a strong operational presence in the city region.

He said: “Our key to success is doing things differently. I find the best way to plan is with an A4 pad and a biro. We have no marketing department and we don’t advertise, but we look after customers and staff well.

My light bulb moment came 23 years ago and it is simple and obvious. The only way ahead is to trust the people who serve customers with freedom to treat them however they wish.

“We have an upside down management structure with the CEO at the bottom. We also have just two rules for staff: 1. Looking the part/good time-keeping; 2. Put the money in the till.

“No one believed anyone would run a successful business by letting people get on with it – and it took five years to convince my middle management of the benefits.

“I’m free to run the business as I want. I’m not interested in best practice or KPIs – if it’s not common sense we don’t do it.”

Hosts for the fourth annual event were four companies – Santander Corporate and Commercial Bank, accountancy, investment management and tax group Smith & Williamson, commercial property consultancy Hughes Ellard and law firm Trethowans.

Sir John, 74, knighted in this year’s Birthday Honours for services to business and for fostering 90 children with his late wife Alice, also revealed his unusual methods of employing staff for the UK’s leading high street service retailer.

He said: “When we take staff on we look for personality above all. We are not bothered about CVs, qualifications or even sometimes what candidates say in interview situations. It has worked – we have a business full of personalities.”

The Timpson Group is also renowned for taking on ex-offenders, with 10 per cent of employees being former prisoners.

“I was nervous when we started the policy, but it is worked well. Five hundred people have joined us from prison and less than three per cent have reoffended. Some our quite senior managers came via that route.”

Sir John also spoke of how his company treats staff well – including days off on birthdays, having 10 holiday homes for staff use, a hardship fund for those encountering hard times and a monthly Dreams Come True scheme costing £200,000 a year.

However, he did have a warning for businesses over underperforming or disruptive employees – those that don’t care, are disruptive or moan all the time.

“Get them out – generously, nicely and quickly – because every time it happens in a shop the business improves. You can’t create a great business unless you get rid of the people who aren’t great.”

Second speaker was Irene Graham, inaugural CEO of the ScaleUp Institute, a private sector-led, not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping the UK become the best place in the world to grow a business as well as start one.

Irene, a former senior banker at Standard Chartered Bank, told her audience that there were five key areas to scaling up – access to talent, building leadership capacity, access to markets, finance and infrastructure.

She said the international definition of a scaling up business was that it has already got 10 employees and was growing at a rate of 20 per cent in terms of turnover or employees over an average of three years.

“In the UK we are great at starting up businesses, being third in the world overall – but we are not as good at growing them, being down in 13th place.

“The message from me is that really want to make many more businesses grow faster for the good of the UK economy.

“The Solent region has some progress to make for those businesses that are scaling and growing and issues to address around leadership and markets.

“Businesses need to act locally and act together. We could do more in the Solent region in a joined-up way to create a localised eco system fit for scaling up.”

Irene also updated summit guests on ScaleUp Institute initiatives across the country and reminded them that fast-growing businesses were not confined to just the tech industry, but also in retail, manufacturing and oil and gas.

Russell Mogridge, Director of Hughes Ellard, said: “This occasion is a great opportunity for businesses in the Solent region to come together and hear a thought-provoking and inspirational speaker.

“For me, it was fascinating to hear about Sir John Timpson’s ‘human’ methods and it is probably how we would all like to conduct our businesses. His unique style of management has certainly helped his company’s continued growth.

“It is an undoubted truth that people are the most important component of any company and treating staff well is pretty much a fundamental and basic part of any manager’s role.”

Paul Duckworth, Partner at Smith & Williamson, said: “What most stuck in my mind was the well-expressed belief that to be great themselves businesses need to hire great employees. That is the only way to grow.

“The Solent region’s business leaders have been given marvellous insights into the way a unique company is run and there is certainly a lot of food for thought in the views of both Sir John Timpson and Irene Graham.

“It is heartening that our four organisations behind this summit have demonstrated yet again that there is an appetite for growth within the region and that it is incumbent on all of us to help push this forward as far as possible.”

Lucy Grey, Corporate Partner at Trethowans, said: “It would have been a surprise to many people to learn that the Solent region is somewhat behind the average with regard to businesses scaling up.

“It certainly looks like we have got some work to do to help our entrepreneurs. We need to pull together and push as many collaborations as we can to ensure fast-growing companies get all the help they can.

“The Solent Business Growth Summit is an outstanding gathering of our top decision-makers, an excellent way of hearing a number of different perspectives and a chance to encourage growth.”

Gwyn Price, Santander Corporate and Commercial Bank South East and Solent Regional Director, said: “The compelling message from today is that successful business all about attracting, training, retaining, empowering and developing good staff.

“As a bank we are in constant contact with a great many business – from the biggest corporates to SMEs and one-man bands – and the key factor is the same, that talent management is the prime consideration for any organisation.

“The beauty of the Solent Business Growth Summit is that we are all fighting for the same side – to promote the region as the best place to live and work in the country – and challenge ourselves to do better.”