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Cobbler with a Conscience

Cobbler with a Conscience

Natalie Anglesey visits Sir John Timpson to discuss doing things upside down, revitalising our towns and a love of Manchester City


I first met John Timpson when, as a new recruit at the BBC, I was sent to interview him at his new shoe shop in Manchester. Now he’s Sir John Timpson CBE, and we are catching up with the intervening years in his luxurious Cheshire home, set in beautiful gardens, near Tarporley.

Because of his generosity to a number of charities, the multi-millionaire has earned himself the description as ‘a cobbler with a conscience’, but John’s quick to point out. “First, I was never a cobbler, but I’m proud of the fact that I worked my way up in the family business. I served my first customer in Altrincham in 1960 when I was only 17, eventually becoming chairman and owner of Timpson, the UK shoe repair chain. In the intervening years, we accrued fashion and dry cleaner businesses with over two thousand shops as well as outlets in the major supermarkets.”

You may have seen John on BBC North West Tonight, power-walking down an Altrincham street as he tried to explain to a reporter about his latest role spear-heading a government initiative entitled High Street 2030: Achieving Change.

“The aim is to investigate bringing life back to our ailing high streets, and I nearly said no when they first asked me,” John explains. “That was mainly because of the amount of work I knew it would entail - as we had to explore similar areas of need around the country from Aberdeen in the north to the very south. But when I realised that I have more expertise in that area than most, I agreed, and it’s been an interesting investigation.”

With John’s usual bluntness, he comes straight to the point about his findings. “First, let me say there’s no such thing as a quick fix. There are simply too many shops selling the same things. Although some people may prefer shopping online, many still love to go shopping. To bring life back to the high street, we need to bring people back into town - so residential housing would help. In the 13th century, people at Altrincham market would be selling their wares ranging from sheep to produce, then finding somewhere to eat, drink and sleep - it’s as basic as that still.”


But where, I wondered, was the money coming from to achieve this new look? “It’s all about policy and process,” John counters. “The government has set aside £675 million to help councils bring back people into the centre of towns. It’s now up to them.”

As John leads me into his study, which is full of his business awards, I notice a picture of him outside Buckingham Palace with his CBE for Services to Business awarded by Prince Charles. Did he know who you were, I wondered? “Well he said all the right things, but I think he was just well briefed,” John chuckles.

It’s evident that the study is the place where John likes to work. Many would describe him as a workaholic, but he obviously just enjoys a variety of challenges. Apart from his business interests, he’s been writing a weekly column about the various aspects of business management in The Daily Telegraph for almost 13 years, which he still enjoys. There’s also a shelf full of the books he has written about his own unique management style. He remains chairman of his own company but is also a non-executive director of Barclays.

John’s keen to impress that he wishes more people would follow his Upside Down Management ethos, which he’s written about in one of his books. “You see most businesses have large middle management which tells people what to do. To me, that’s wrong. If you get the right people at the counter or in the workplace, they will tell you exactly what’s needed - that’s what I mean about Upside Down Management and, believe me, it works. I tell people working in middle management they should be listening to the people who deal with the customer and look after their well-being - it’s as simple as that.”

John shows me an almost finished copy of his latest book, Mental Health Issues in Business, which is something he’s been interested in long before the Royal Family became involved. “It’s a problem in business but also education, and I’ve been working on that for years in local schools as well as talking to OFSTED, the Office For Standards in Education.


“I’m particularly interested in caring for children who have been out of the school system for whatever reason, perhaps they have been fostered or adopted, which are areas I do know a bit about.”

Although Alex, his late wife, and John had three children of their own, they adopted two, and they also fostered 90, so he has more experience than most. I ventured that, in the past, with all the family around when they were small children, it must have been a noisy household at the end of a busy day.

John jokingly replied, “Well, we didn’t foster them all at the same time! Alex was awarded an MBE for Fostering although she warranted so much more. That’s why I founded The Alex Timpson Charity in her name. We saw at first hand children who had never been loved or looked after and who needed that special care. We’ve still a lot to learn and do in those areas.”

John was awarded his knighthood for Services to Business and Fostering. “I was awarded that by The Queen although the big awards are always at the end of the day, which meant a very long wait. Fortunately, Julie Walters was also being honoured that day, so she proved very good company!”

Alex was obviously a great inspiration to John as she encouraged him to go for a £42 million management buy-out of the original family business back in 1983. After selling the shoe shop division four years later, John created a separate Timpson Shoe Repair company which became the basis of today’s multi-service chain. They’ve diversified into retail, watch repairs, photo-processing and barber shops among several other departments which are continually changing.

One of John’s earlier books, entitled Dear James: Secrets of Success from a Management Maverick, was written as a guide to his eldest son James. “He was serving customers when he was only 14 in the Northwich branch during the school holidays and worked for other companies before he finally joined the family business,” John proudly tells me.

“Only seven years later, James became Chief Executive, and he has been awarded an OBE for his work with ex-offenders, and he deserves it. He is currently Chair of the Prison Reform Trust. We both believe in giving people a second chance, and we now employ ex-offenders straight from prison. We both feel if we give them our commitment, they will return that loyalty -  and it works!”


John’s rightly proud of his family. “My other son Edward, who was formerly MP for Crewe and Nantwich, is still in politics. He has a CBE and has just finished writing a critical report. While my daughter and her family live in London. There she writes cryptic clues for crosswords for several national newspapers. All my grandchildren are interested in the family business. Nine of them have already worked for the business in some capacity or another, and they loved it.”

Born in 1943, and educated at Oundle and Nottingham University, John is also busy writing a book about the history of the family business initially founded by a cobbler back in 1860. It will contain stories of family feuds, business lost and found, as well as take-overs. It sounds like an interesting read.

How does this busy man relax away from the business world? “Our family are massive Manchester City supporters,” John enthuses. ”A recent highlight was when I was able to take my two sons to Wembley when City won the FA Cup - that was a great day and one we’ll long remember! I’ve always been a bit of a sportsman and regularly play golf and real tennis although I’m just playing ordinary tennis later today.”

Finally, I ventured what the most valuable lessons John’s learned over the years are? “This may sound strange, but it’s an art to run a successful business rather than, as you’d expect, a science. Always make sure you’ve money in the bank. And as our business depends on customer satisfaction, make sure you’ve got the right people looking after the customer as we must respond to customer needs. Every day is different and do remember the value of a smile. Summing up, it’s important to look after your workforce on a personal level. If you look after your people - they’ll be loyal to you.”


The Timpson Group


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