Trust your staff to succeed, maverick entrepreneur tells business summit

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 Solent 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 do 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 the 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. Look the part 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 – Commercial property consultancy Hughes Ellard, Santander Corporate and Commercial Bank, accountancy, investment management and tax group Smith & Williamson 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 Alex, also revealed his unusual methods of employing staff for the UK’s leading high street service retailer.

He said: “When we recruit new staff we look for personality above all else. 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 has worked well. Over five hundred of our current colleagues joined us from prison and those that have joined us over the last 15 years less than three per cent have reoffended. Some of our senior managers came to us via that route.”

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

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

“Get them out – generously, nicely and quickly – because every time it happens in one of our shops the business improves. You can’t create a great business unless you get rid of the people who aren’t interested in being 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 (exports, supply chains and procurement opportunities), finance and infrastructure.

She said the international definition of a scale 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 but we are not as good at growing them, we are down in 13th place.

“If we can ensure we lean in collectively to help many more businesses scaleup this will be good for the local and UK economy.

“The Solent region has some work to do, in relation to, those businesses that are scaling and growing, and challenges to address around leadership capacity and markets.

“The public and private sector from finance to large corporates to educators and local authorities all 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 are also in retail, manufacturing and professional services to name a few.

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.”

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