John Timpson: 'All the great retailers know their customers. Does M&S?'

John Timpson runs a 150-year-old family retail business but he is still a student of his high-street companions. Some are touched by genius, he tells Margareta Pagano. Others are in trouble

Margareta Pagano
Friday 16 October 2015 23:20 BST
John Timpson, Chairman of Timpson shoe repairers - photographed at a branch in Kingsway London
John Timpson, Chairman of Timpson shoe repairers - photographed at a branch in Kingsway London (Peter Macdiarmid)

It’s time to put Marks & Spencer out of its misery, declared John Timpson. “Watching the decline of the once-great M&S is like seeing a well-known football team relegated from the Premier League.”

What’s more, he said Lord Wolfson of Next should take over the group. “Simon is one of the most brilliant retailers of his generation. He knows his customers inside and out, and has never strayed from the path.

“M&S was the gold standard of retail. They had the best graduate training scheme and it’s where everybody on the street poached their top executives. It’s still a good business, but not a great one, and has been going downhill since the 1990s. It’s difficult to get back once you have been on top.”

The 72-year-old Mr Timpson should know. His family business – the Timpson shoe repairing to key-cutting empire, which has around 1,400 shops in the UK – has been up and down in the retail game since 1865 when his great grandfather opened his first shoe shop in Manchester.

Now he has picked his own Premier League of the top 50 retailers he’s admired during a 50-year shopping trip around the country. The result is his sixth, and undoubtedly most racy, book yet – High Street Heroes: The Story of British Retail in 50 People – which is published next week. It’s a warts-and-all romp through British retailing since the 1960s and is packed with colourful, and cutting, stories of bumpy encounters with the likes of the Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green, and why he’s never forgiven the former Burtons boss Sir Ralph Halpern for making him wait for lunch.

Speaking from his home near Manchester last week, Mr Timpson said that without question his top player, paradoxically, is Marcus Sieff, a grandson of the M&S founding families who worked in the stores all his life and chaired the business until 1974. “His hallmark was excellence in everything. Good retailers are great leaders and create the right culture for their staff.”

Close behind Sieff is John Spedan Lewis, the man who created the John Lewis Partnership, and in third place John Davan Sainsbury, of the eponymous supermarket. Also in the top 50 are Sir Charles Dunstone (14th) of Carphone Warehouse, who is the Lord Kalms (17th) of his day; Julian Metcalfe (20th) of Pret A Manger, a genius who has set new standards for customer service; and Julian Richer (37th) of Richer Sounds, a visionary from whom Timpson has copied ideas for his shops.

Women figure highly too.He puts Anita Roddick of Body Shop in ninth position for her originality, while the spectacular Dame Mary Perkins of Specsavers is in 27th slot. Jacqueline Gold of the Ann Summers sex shops – he says only a woman could have done what she did – Laura Ashley and Barbara Hulanicki of the fashion brand Biba are also in the league.

So what makes them stand out? “All these retailers knew exactly who their customer was and provided them with great service. They were sure-footed and didn’t get bogged down with too much management. Both Marcus Sieff and John Lewis took the long-term view; Andy Street still does that running the John Lewis Partnership. So does Waitrose, another brilliant retailer.”

By contrast, Boots, WH Smith, motorway petrol stations and the Post Office are all on the naughty step. “They look tired and boring and the service is lousy. I can’t see Boots lasting long, particularly now that it’s been taken over by Walgreens in the US. Starbucks is not great either – they haven’t worked out that we aren’t American.”

Mr Timpson said the biggest mistakes made by M&S, and more recently by Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, have been ineptitude in handing over control to new management, having a bloated middle management and getting too big – either by physical expansion, offering too many products or venturing abroad. “Never, never, never go overseas,” he said – UK retailers always get it wrong.

His way of avoiding top-heavy management is to do away with their jobs. “When I introduced my ‘upside school of management,’ which is putting the customer at the top of the matrix and management at the bottom – and giving staff the freedom to run their own shops – our middle managers didn’t like it at all. Many left.”

As he admitted, Timpson is a funny business. It does all the odd jobs that no one else wants to do, whether its key-cutting or, now, watch and mobile phone repairs. “This wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t understood the importance of picking the right people and giving them the freedom to look after customers and to decide how to run their shops and to set their own rules. That is the core of our success.”

Like a magpie, Mr Timpson has nicked many of his more contrarian ideas from competitors such as Richer Sounds but also the great US fashion retailer Nordstrom, which puts customers and employees first. Staff are allowed to use his company’s five holiday homes for free, are helped financially if they are in trouble, and each year take part in a “Dreams Come True” competition. “One family was reunited with their father in Barbados after 13 years... It’s blindingly obvious to me that if trust in your people and give them freedom, they will be happy and work well.”

When people apply to work at Timpson, they are asked to fill out Mr Men style questionnaires, filling in their personality traits along the lines of favourite characters like Mr Keen. “I don’t care about people’s qualifications. We can train them to do shoe repairs but we can’t train for personality.”

Today he’s Mr Happy. Timpson, which is run by his eldest son James, recently reported sales up 12 per cent to £189m and profits 38 per cent higher at £18.7m for 2014. Over the past three years the company has grown rapidly – from 800 stores to 1,400 following the purchase of the photo chains Max Spielmann and Snappy Snaps and a tie-up with Tesco and Sainsbury’s. It had to expand; the number of shoe repairs are linked to the price of shoes and the overall market has shrunk by 90 per cent since the 1960s.

When not visiting stores – he tries to get to around 800 a year – Mr Timpson spends time working for his company charities, devoted to helping adopted children and local primary schools as well as getting ex-prisoners back to work with training and jobs. He and his wife Alex – who stopped him from floating on the stock market in 1991 because she warned that he would hate having outside shareholders– have five children, three of their own and two adopted, and have fostered more than 90. “As you may have gathered, Alex is the one who decides what matters. She was not a lady who lunched, so when our youngest started school she wanted to foster children – but younger than our youngest.”

Getting the wider public to understand the importance of the “attachment period” in early childhood is something of a crusade for them, and his two books on attachment are given away in the shops. Their extraordinary work has rubbed off in other ways: their son Edward, a barrister turned MP, is now minister for children.

And the future of the high street? Mr Timpson is optimistic: “It’s too early to see whether George Osborne’s decision to give local councils powers over business rates will help; they may go up, you never know.

“Bricks and mortar is still the future... I’m not convinced yet that online retailers will ever make money; the supermarkets are losing about £100m on their internet services. Just wait and see – there will soon be new retailers we don’t know about yet who will lead the next generation. Bring them on.”

The CV: John Timpson

Chairman of Timpson chain of repair shops

Born 1943

Education Oundle School, Nottingham University.

Career Graduate trainee with Clarks in Street, Somerset and then joined the family footwear business, William Timpson.

1970 Director of buying at Timpson

1973 Timpson bought by the UDS Group

1975 Became managing director of William Timpson, the original family business

1983 Led a £42m management buyout from UDS, then part of Hanson Trust

1987 Sold the chain’s shoe shops to George Oliver and expanded into shoe repair and key cutting

1995 Bought the 120-shop Automagic chain

2014 Bought 139 digital photo shops from Tesco

Outside interests The Timpson Foundation

Favourite book Mayor of Casterbridge

Favourite film School for Scoundrels

Favourite music Buddy Holly

Favourite shop Etro (unless I’m allowed to pick our shop in Taunton where Bob and his team give amazing service)

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