CEO of Timpson Group
James Timpson OBE is CEO of the Timpson Group, a large family-owned business that has been operating since 1865. The group operates shoe repair/key cutting/locksmith shops around the UK and high street photography businesses (also has barbers and dry-cleaning stores in the portfolio). It employs around 5000 people in nearly 2000 stores in the UK and Ireland.
James is an interesting and dynamic CEO – growing the business rapidly since he took over the leadership of the group in 2002. His approaches have bucked high street trends (e.g. opening ‘pods’ in large supermarkets or within their car parks).
His style of business leadership is driven by a philosophy of corporate kindness that he believes makes for more successful and happy places to work for all his staff at all levels. He feels this is lacking too often in corporate UK. He puts this into practices in a wide variety of ways e.g. 10%+ of his staff (= approx. 600 people according to his website) are ex-offenders (James chairs the UK’s Prison Reform Trust as is very active in offender rehabilitation programmes – it was in this area he was awarded his OBE in 2011).
He is also a big advocate of ‘upside down management’ – that follows his philosophy of running a business based on trust and kindness. He recruits based on personality, not on paperwork alone. His business provides employees a wide variety of benefits alongside their salary – including access to free holiday homes, a Dreams Come True scheme, weekly staff lotteries and a wide variety of personal and family support (e.g. mental and financial help and advice).
What are the main global challenges for business leaders?
"The biggest impact on our business, in my career, has been the advance in technology as well as the focus on diversity, both of which have been very welcomed in our business. I see the future as being the continuation of a digital world but within the context of a climate crisis. It is how we use technology to help us solve the problems that we have created with our climate.
To answer the question about the challenges globally that are affecting businesses is a hard one because there are so many. But you need to understand which ones affect your business in a critical way. In our business, the big one is inflation because we have had the last six, seven, or eight years where there hasn’t really been much inflation to be worried about. But when I speak to my dad who was running the business in the 1970’s they were putting the prices up four times a year because inflation was at 26%. Inflation can be very dangerous, and it can be misleading because you lose focus on where the base numbers are in a business. So, today I would say my biggest issue as a business leader is inflation."
What skills do graduates need to become good business leaders?
"Most entrepreneurs and business leaders fail many times until they are perceived to be successful. I don’t know any business leader who see themselves as successful because there is always another crisis around the corner and there are always things that we haven’t done right.
I would say one of the personality traits that’s required is persistence and, also being resilient enough to cope with problems that come across your desk week in, week out."
How important is the role of universities?
"Universities and business schools are vital to the future of our economy. When I went to university in the 1990s, there weren’t really business schools at all. There were a few dotted around the world and now it’s great to see there are so many of them because there is an awful lot to learn, but the best way to learn post university is to get stuck in and learn everything from accountancy to serving customers, to logistics, and HR. The fact is, if you want to be a successful business leader, you need to know a bit of everything."
Why did you want to be a Visiting Professor?
"It’s great to be a visiting professor at Aston Business School and for me, the biggest privilege is to talk to students and academics about how they see the world but also to try and give some real-life examples of what it’s like to run a business today, and the experience I have had running the business for the last twenty years.
It gives me a lot of hope meeting the students today and it’s exciting to see how passionate and ambitious they are. It’s great to see an environment like we have here at Aston, people can really be themselves and fuel that ambition."