Sir John Timpson Delivers The Oundle Lecture

Sir John Timpson (Sidney 1960) returned to School to deliver this year’s Oundle Lecture to Lower Sixth Form pupils, staff, Old Oundelians and parents. His inspiring talk received sustained applause in appreciation for how he has built a successful business with kindness and compassion, and applied his values more widely to help communities and institutions thrive.

Beginning with his school career, Sir John made it clear that as a schoolboy there was no indication that he would later achieve business success. He said he made a mess in the famed workshops, the 5th XI was the best standard he attained, and he was too shy to get into trouble and attract notice. 

When he finished school he joined the family business, working on the shoe production line and then behind the counter, building experience of different levels of business and customer service. After university his first job at C & J Clark in Street took him back into shoe production where he made his first - and only pair - of brown leather shoes, which he wore for the evening’s lecture and dinner - despite black tie dress.

Founded in 1870, the family business expanded, evolved and suffered the usual boardroom dramas, sales and acquisitions of most long-running businesses over the years. A management buyout by Sir John in 1983 eventually led to the business once again being wholly owned by the Timpson family. The business no longer sells shoes, but retains the shoe repair service. Together with key cutting, Sir John said that he had unwittingly developed a business that could not be replaced by internet commerce. 

The Timpson Group now has 2000 shops with diversified services. But what distinguishes Timpsons is not its success as a wholly owned family business, but its success as a company that is routinely in The Times’ list of the top 10 best UK companies to work for. Sir John calls his approach “upside down management”, otherwise known as “common sense”. The people who work for the company are “colleagues”, and are given the freedom “to do their best”. Shop managers do not issue orders, they give support and help their colleagues overcome personal problems that might be leading to poor performance in the workplace. Incentives and rewards include holiday homes for free use by colleagues, days off for personal occasions, and paid-for “dreams come true” surprises, such as trips, dental treatments and even a divorce for one colleague. 

Sir John attributes his maverick tendencies, and the ethos and direction that the company took, to his late wife Alex, who was “captain” of the family. Their ideas and commitment to help people do their best extended to work with schools and the NHS, and together they fostered 90 children over 31 years. Their son James is the next generation to work in the business, and he has already made important initiatives, such as the company’s policy to employ ex-offenders, with many beginning their training for the job while still in prison. Ten percent of Timpson colleagues are recruited from prison.

Sir John convinced the aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience that it makes business sense to build a business plan with kindness and consideration. Sir John has created wealth that cannot be measured by a balance sheet, and he has made money while showing kindness. 

“Doing good is good for business,” he concluded.