James Timpson OBE: Finding Great People in Not-So-Great Places

posted 08 Mar 2022 3 mins

On 8th March, we welcomed James Timpson, CEO of the family-owned shoe and retail business, to address our virtual audience in our latest Winter Talk: Finding Great People in Not-So-Great Places.

James shared the philosophy that has guided the business through the years, from the founding of the firm by his great-great grandfather through a boardroom split and subsequent management buyout led by his father, John. The basic principle behind their success and longevity (even through the bumpy ride of COVID-19) is that Timpson’s is ‘not a financially driven business, but rather a culturally driven business’. This has developed into an ‘upside-down management system, all about trust and kindness’.  Equally, James argues, this emphasis on care and equal respect for all colleagues is ‘how you get the ideas.’; the running of every Timpson’s store, from photography shops to cleaners, hotels and locksmiths, is left to the judgment and ingenuity of individual colleagues. This focus on individual responsibility and excellence, and the high standards the company sets ‘to work with people who are nine and ten out of ten, not a seven or an eight’, leads to a thriving culture where new approaches are constantly tried and tested.

James is also chair of the Prison Reform Trust, where he has devised new approaches to the employment of ex-offenders. Over 10% of Timpson’s workers have spent time in prison, and he is passionate about ‘developing a long-term culture of employment in the prison, helping prisoners get job-ready, and establishing links with employers “on the outside” so that people can get jobs on the day of their release.’ More recently James was instrumental in setting up Employment Advisory Boards with the objective of developing access to employment within the prison service. These are already operating successfully in 45 prisons and James is looking to recruit business leaders to chair Boards in the remaining 53 resettlement prisons. (Those interested in taking up this role are welcome to get in touch via )

Our Q&A session focused on how James has worked to create a culture of ‘looking after people and thinking long term.’: ‘It’s not just because I want to be nice, but because I’m really commercial – I’m as commercial as you’ll get – but other things are more important in the long run.’ Incorporating generous benefits, financial aid, happiness indexes and ‘rate your boss’ surveys, Timpson’s corporate ethos boils down to one question: ‘What can you do to make this the happiest, most secure place that any of your colleagues have ever worked in?’ In many respects, James concluded, ‘it’s basic common sense.’