Q I have always been shy and it's never held me back in business. I run an engineering firm and there are plenty of wallflowers here. Next week, however, I am going on a fundraising road show in the US and I'm worried my diffidence will be mistaken for truculence by the larger-than-life Yanks. Any advice?
A Don't worry about your shyness, just be yourself. If you are decent, honest and knowledgeable you will create the right impression. Extroverts don't always hit the right note, people who ooze self-confidence can create irritation and resentment.
You certain ...
Q What happens after you retire? Will the Timpson philosophy disappear?
A I have no plans to retire. I hope to spend many more years visiting our shops, talking to colleagues and keeping sufficiently in touch to keep an eye on our strategy and culture, but you raise a good point on our philosophy. We run our business in an unusual way that works so well we are putting a lot of time and effort into making sure our “upside-down management” is firmly entrenched in our culture.
I've written books about the way it all works and we run regular leadership co ...
Answering questions from Telegraph readers has never been dull but some have given me special enjoyment and plenty of fun.
I like the bits of business that put a smile on your face. Corporate life can be too serious, it's the light hearted side of day to day management that gives the organisation its character and puts a buzz into going to work.
This selection includes many questions that reminded me of some amusing highlights and bizarre events that have happened during my career. One of the great things about business is that you never know what will happen next ...
Q I am trying to decide whether to take up my place at university or go straight into the workplace. Do you think a degree carries any currency these days? It's just so expensive that I'm not sure it's worth the trouble.
A Going to university isn't just a question of getting letters after your name. The degree, in itself, won't guarantee a good job, but if you approach the whole experience with a positive, can-do and will-tackle-everything attitude, you will be a much more employable character by the end of the course.
I hope you've picked the right subject to st ...
Q A one-armed man has applied for a job at my firm. The role involves a lot of coding on the computer. Unsure as to whether this handicap will affect his productivity or not. Is one arm as good as two?
A It is a pity that some people turn disabled employment into a political topic when it should be determined by common sense and common decency.
In the workplace, a lack of determination, selfishness, poor team spirit and bad timekeeping are much bigger handicaps than the loss of a limb. You want people who turn up for work with a positive attitude and the flexibil ...
Q “On demand” is a fast-growing industry. Can you imagine turning your business into a mobile, man-with-van-type enterprise, going to the customer rather than vice versa?
A In my study, amongst all the memories that Alex says I should put in the bin, is a file of old lists filled with ideas I never quite turned into reality. One of the best dreams that never came true is “Heels on Wheels” a mobile cobbling shop that was going to take us to towns that didn't have a Timpson.
I tried other ideas that I wish had never been put into practice li ...
Q Robots are going to replace humans in certain professions, like banking, or so they say. Can you imagine drafting in a robot army to cut keys?
A Ever since we started cutting keys in 1969, the prophets of doom have forecast that traditional key cutters would soon be ousted by new technology. More threats are being mentioned now than ever before.
Traditional mortice and cylinder keys could be replaced by digital or electronic locks and future doors may open in response to fingerprints or voice recognition.
Laser printers are already able to duplicate keys (so ...
Q Several of the recent press reports on the problems at Tesco have commented on the lack of retail experience within the main board. This seems to be part of the current trend that managers do not need relevant experience of the industry that they manage, i.e. a good manager can manage anything. Would you employ a manager who did not have relevant experience of the business area that he was due to manage?
A The growing emphasis on governance and the demands of institutional shareholders have filled board rooms with non-executive directors who tick all the boxes an ...
Q How can I recreate a good working atmosphere in my company in Glasgow following the referendum? There has been a serious breakdown in working relationships between the two camps, which is beginning to damage my company's performance.
A It's probably wrong to blame low morale on the referendum. You might have felt more tension during the Yes/No debate but the problem is more likely to be caused by inside concerns. Supporters of Celtic and Rangers can work together if your company has a happy culture. You won't change the atmosphere overnight, but the following th ...
Q I run a chain of shops in Kent. I recently found out that my son has been stealing inventory to sell to his friends at school. Nothing illegal, magazines, sweets and stationery. How do I deal with this? I'm so angry and disappointed that he would disrespect my livelihood in this way.
A I can understand your immediate feelings of anger and disappointment but it is important for you to deal with the problem carefully and calmly. Some children find growing up very tricky but they always need the support of their parents, especially when their behaviour severely tests t ...
Q Last year, you wrote that you weren't too bothered which way the Scots voted in the upcoming referendum, saying that it was unlikely to affect your business. Is this still the case?
A With over 100 outlets in Scotland, I'm bound to be a bit concerned about the implications of a Yes vote, so, exactly a week before the poll, I consulted the Scots who manage our Scottish shops.
Alex, our regional manager, who told me six months ago it was bound to be a No when he said, “We can be daft but we are not that daft” is not so sure any more.
He now says ...
Q One of my employees suffers from depression. It's a debilitating ailment and one I have much sympathy for. However, it also means this person has long periods out of the office. As a small company, I can't afford to keep them on staff, but I'm terrified of ending up in an employment tribunal. How do I get myself out of this bind?
A Management teams worry too much over tribunals, at the expense of both their business and their employees.
Speculation about the law certainly shouldn't be allowed to stop you giving proper support to colleagues suffering from stress ...
Q I have owned a card and gift shop, with my husband, for 10 years. It was a good business for 17 years prior to that. We felt that we could do well and provide ourselves with a reasonable pension. Shortly after we arrived, so did Clintons.
We lost 25pc of our trade gradually and a further 5pc after the recession hit. It was touch and go, then Clintons collapsed and our business shot up by 30pc. We enjoyed two years in this happy state, being able to pay off the overdraft and much of our business loan. We decided to retire as we are in our mid-sixties. But nobody ...
Q I've inherited a team of people from a previous manager, who was incompetent. As a result, this team is unmotivated and has completely lost faith with the company. How do I get them to fall back in love with their work? Or should I just fire them all?
A You certainly shouldn't fire them all (and finish running the business on your own) in fact you shouldn't fire anyone but don't be surprised if the odd one decides to leave.
What made your predecessor so bad? Did he (if it was a man) lack people skills, break promises, pick poor people, lose all the superstars, h ...
Q There's a lot of patriotic talk about British businesses around at the moment. Is this sort of protectionism actually healthy, though? Should we be embracing a more globalised view?
A There's nothing wrong with being patriotic. The positive atmosphere we experienced during the London Olympics helped Great Britain win a record number of medals. The country gave overwhelming support to Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, but we don't see the same enthusiasm in celebrating the success of business leaders such Mike Ashley or Lord Wolfson.
Whenever Timpson buys a poorly per ...
Q There was recently a piece in The Telegraph about retail “chameleons” that work out innovative ways to use their shops outside of usual hours, like hiring them out as event spaces or hosting pop-ups. Would you ever do that with larger Timpson's stores?
A I read the article with interest and can only applaud anyone who can find a way to pay their landlord only one rent but support more than one business.
Some years ago I saw a remarkable shop that was a sandwich bar by day but became an Indian takeaway at night. I was fascinated to watch their fascia flick over at ...
Q What do you think is the greatest acceptable multiple between the salary of the lowest paid person in the company and the highest paid? Should we have a standard or should it vary for different kinds of companies?
A A fair pay gap formula will never solve the problems created by jealousy and greed. The Ten Commandments haven't saved us and a magic salary scheme has little hope of creating harmony in the workplace.
There are at least three reasons why income controls are doomed to failure.
The headline culprits are greedy bosses, who used to be called “the unaccept ...
Q During the heatwave, my staff have been sluggish, unmotivated and generally miserable being in the office. What do you think of the idea of introducing a siesta and two-tier day like they have on the Continent to boost productivity?
A In 1976, when there was a heatwave that went on for week after week, our warehouse team started work at 6am and finished at 2pm. The move was so popular some wanted us to make the change permanent.
Despite the talk of global warming we haven't seen a similar summer over the last 38 years, but, even if we did, I don't think a siesta will work in ...
Q My HR manager keeps going on at me about diversity. Is it actually important to think about these things? Why should I care?
A If the diversity of your workforce is decidedly different from the general population, it is time to dig deeper.
One of the keys to business success is to pick a team full of superstars and to steer clear of poor performers.
Talent is well distributed between people of all shapes and sizes. Top talent is found in tall people and fat ones, young and old, Liverpool supporters and even Man United season-ticket-holders, blacks, whites, Asi ...
Q Would you ever consider floating Timpson? If not, why not?
A We got very close to a float in 1989, seduced by the spectacular success of other niche retailers like Body Shop, Tie Rack and Sock Shop.
Very fortunately Alex said “No!” She felt my maverick approach to management wasn't suited to institutional shareholders who would find it difficult to think like a retail cobbler and measured success by fantasy forecasts and short-term results. Alex was right, two years later a drop in consumer spending halved our profits. If we had floated, I'd probably ha ...
Q ’Wellness' is the business buzzword du jour. CEOs everywhere are going on about how they meditate, drink eight glasses of water, or say ’affirmations'. How do you stay well?
A I am happy for anyone to follow whatever weird and wonderful fitness regime they wish as long as they don't force their views on others, especially me.
I've mentioned in this column before that I have suffered from stress several times over the last 35 years. I know a fair bit about the misery it can cause, but am no longer bothered by the stigma which some stress sufferers ...
When, on June 27, the right to request flexible working is extended to all employees, some bosses will see it as more government interference and an extra round of red tape. We will, no doubt, get plenty of advice from the experts on how our HR Departments can comply with the new legislation and make our lives that little bit more complicated but it won't make any difference to me - flexible working is already a fundamental part of the way we do business.
I stumbled on the benefits of a flexible workplace by chance, while trying to find the secret to giving great c ...
Q I work as a director in a family business. The chairman has just appointed his son, 28, to a senior position in line with mine. He's green, arrogant, and utterly incapable but his father appears blinded by love. What should I do?
A Although I can understand your chairman's desire to see his son following in his footsteps, I'm somewhat surprised that he's parachuted the blue-eyed boy straight into the board room. Most family business owners realise other members of the family have to earn the respect of the workforce before being accepted as a proper boss. You won' ...
Q This HS2 furore just keeps on chugging along. Where do you stand on the debate?
A If I had a house next to the proposed route and faced the prospect of fast trains cutting through my life, I wouldn't be happy. But as a regular traveller from Crewe to Euston, I am bound to be in favour.
Even now, the journey only takes 1hr 35m, hardly enough time to read The Telegraph, so the time saved won't make a lot of difference to me, but it will persuade more Londoners to go to Manchester. There is a good chance that HS2 will bring more business to the North West.
Q I've just landed my first ever management role. In this new job, I have six people in my team, none of whom I've met before. As I'm totally new to people management, are there any pointers you can give me?
A You're bound to be anxious but always remember that you got the job because someone believes in your ability. There is no need to make lots of quick decisions in order to show you're in charge. Being a boss isn't about giving orders and chairing meetings – your main task is to make life easier for the rest of the team.
Be friendly but don't make them ...
Q I haven't raised my prices for three years. I have always been frightened about upsetting my customers and pushing them into a rival's arms. This means my margin has been steadily shrinking. Am I being overcautious? Should I do a small price hike and see how it goes?
A In the Seventies, when inflation went over 26pc, price increases were part of our regular routine. Today, with inflation at 2pc, it is tempting to leave things alone. Most of us believe we run a pretty perfect organisation, but it is wise to be paranoid. As well as an annual cost-cutting purge, you ...
Q A married colleague is openly having an affair with a client but still insists on bringing his wife to all the work dos. Everyone knows he's unfaithful, which I think is awful. Should I send her an anonymous note informing her of her husband's infidelity?
A There is seldom anything to be gained by interfering in a colleague's personal life. You don't really know what goes on behind a married couple's closed door. My advice is to keep your thoughts to yourself and stay well clear.
If everyone in the office is aware of the affair his wife probably knows all ab ...
Q I foolishly left a pen drive on my desk last week containing some inappropriate photos of me and my partner. A colleague picked it up, found the images, and has begun circulating them. I want to get revenge. Any ideas?
A You were silly to leave your memory stick lying around but I can understand your irritation that a nosey colleague is now putting your intimate pictures on public view. Be careful, revenge is not always sweet. If you hit back by discovering some dirt to dish out on the villain you may cause the cad to give your pictures a wider distribution. I presum ...
Q I run a small chain of clothing stores in the Midlands. My staff have to wear my designs in store. One girl, who is rather on the large side, is definitely wearing items that are at least two sizes too small. How do I stop her making a mockery of my clothes?
A You don't want your customers to buy ill-fitting clothes in unsuitable styles, so you have to question the qualifications of a member of staff who makes the same mistake.
If you are a trendy shop, which caters only for stick insects, with nothing to fit the fuller figure, your uniform rule is unreasonable. ...
Q I've been invited on an employee's stag do. I accidentally said that I would go when he first mentioned it. How can I come out of this unscathed?
A You don't say where the stag party's taking place, what you are doing or how long it goes on.
If the plan is to have a few pints at The Pig and Whistle prior to a night on the town, you could turn up early, get in the first round and, as soon as you get the chance, make an early exit. If you're talking of a two-night cultural trip to Amsterdam, all I can recommend is that you put enough money in the pot to buy the te ...
Q Recently I have been feeling overwhelmed by technology. I have two mobile phones, a tablet, plus several laptops that seem to be taking over my life. Do you ever “unplug”? If so, how do you do it? I feel like my world will come crashing down if I miss a single email...
A I certainly can't match your collection of kit. There isn't a computer on my desk, I'm not on Facebook and don't go near Twitter. But I do have an iPad and a BlackBerry, which I think are fantastic.
They let me spend most of my time out of the office but always keep me in touch. I ...
Q One of my employees has been with me for two years. For the first 18 months, her performance was exemplary but recently she seems frequently tired and distracted and has started making mistakes. I don't want to lose her, but I'm worried about the decline in her work. How do I raise the issue delicately?
A Even the best employees can go off the boil, especially when they work alongside the wrong people or if something serious is upsetting their life outside work. Plenty of events can push work down the personal pecking order – breaking up from a partner, a b ...
Q I am the managing director of a large construction company. We have a number of buyers who are responsible for all our purchases. The second most senior, who has been with us for over 20 years and is extremely popular, has been accused by the managing director of one of our suppliers of offering him a bribe. The supplier has asked me for a meeting to discuss what I am going to do.
A I have faith in all our colleagues, particularly those I've known for a long time, but there have been times when that trust has been abused by a star performer. When it comes to pe ...
Q Any tips on how best to review a private company's accounts? Which lines do you check first to see how it's doing? Any calculations you'd quickly run to get a true picture? Any obvious warning signals?
A Accounts come in different shapes and sizes – management accounts, statutory accounts, abbreviated accounts - with lots of accounting jargon. Whatever your plans, don't take the accounts at face value. Forget any ratios an analyst might use, you must work out what the figures mean to you. Treat it as a detective game with the accounts just being one bit of e ...
Q A salesman at my company recently submitted an expenses request for a sizeable amount, spent at a well-known strip club, on a Saturday night. He claims that he took a client of ours, who does indeed spend a lot with the company. I don't want to call this client to check. Equally, I don't want to fork out hundreds for a jolly that may have had nothing to do with the company. I also don't approve of this kind of socialising. What should I do?
A If your salesman wants to go to strip clubs, he should do it in his own time and use his own money. By using your expenses to ...
Q Do you ever use interns in your office? I'm tempted by the free, or perhaps only cheap, labour but worried about employment legislation.
A You've got the wrong attitude. This isn't about cheap labour. Interns turn up for work experience, not to be a dogsbody. If they do a useful job, they should receive a proper pay packet.
I had to reveal my age by checking the precise definition of internship, which I now know is white-collar apprenticeship or work experience in an office. I still have the old-fashioned view that trainees learn a lot more in a factory or a sh ...
Q I've discovered that you are a member of the Women's Business Council, [a government advisory group set up to help women play a full part in business]. I was wondering why you agreed to be involved and what you think you have achieved.
A I was intrigued to see what happens when you come that close to government. Council membership turned out to be a testing experience for a maverick who loves breaking rules. Inevitably, I was surrounded by women, who probably saw me as a bit of a challenge.
Alex, my wife, has shown me the wisdom of a woman's viewpoint, so I lis ...
Q I've always dreamed of running a country pub but have read so many conflicting arguments about the state of the pub industry. How's business at the White Eagle? Do you have any advice for a first-time publican?
A Most people think they know how to run a pub but it's not that easy. All the derelict public houses sadly displaying a ’For Sale' sign should tell you something, but don't be deceived.
The great British pub isn't dead but it has changed a lot. Your dream country pub is unlikely to survive without good food. The car parks are still full at well-ru ...
Q Where do you stand on the debate over low pay? Should the minimum wage be raised? Won't this be a terrible blow to businesses that employ low-skilled workers?
A The recent recommendation of a 3pc rise to £6.50 seems about right, but I doubt that will end the current debate.
Welcome legislation, brought in to bring bad employers in line with best practice, can have unintended consequences if carried too far. It is dangerous when the Government dictates too much detail. If the minimum wage is moved much higher, it will cause less motivation and higher infla ...
Q: As a retired businessman, I thoroughly enjoy your column. However, I hope you will not be offended when I say that your reference to employees/staff as colleagues is disingenuous. They know they are employed, hence employees or staff, and you know you are, or were, the boss. So why not tell it as it is?
We use the word “colleague” rather than “staff” or “employee” because we want everyone to recognise that the usual rules of command and control don't apply at Timpson.
Managers create the culture and set the strategy but our ...
Q A large client has adopted some pretty shady bullyboy tactics over its payment terms. We're thinking of shopping them to the Government under its “late payers” initiative. But we're worried that it will damage our reputation if we become known as a snitch. What should we do?
A There's a lot of current talk about how to prevent late payment but nothing will work better than a few small companies with the courage to blow the whistle on the worst offenders.
The Government can lead by example by settling public-sector contracts on the nail, but any move ...
Q For years, I have been telling anyone who will listen that our throwaway culture is becoming toxic. Young people buy cheap clothes from Primark that they toss out a few weeks later. People don't seem to mend things any more.
Yet recently, a government adviser recommended that we repair stuff, particularly household appliances, rather than throwing them away. As a leading businessman in the mending business, how can we encourage consumers do ’fix up and cherish' rather than ’bin and buy new'?
A Many years ago my father taught me the economics of cobblin ...
Q There are hundreds of business awards but many seem to honour the same people, particularly entrepreneurs, over and over. If you were to launch a John Timpson Business of the Year award, who would win it and why?
Many years ago, I optimistically competed for a number of awards.
It was a familiar routine, fill in the entry form, appear before the judges panel, then, pleased to be shortlisted, proudly purchase a ticket or even a table for the awards dinner only to discover that cobblers seldom win the cup. We no longer enter but I can see the appeal of being a spon ...
Q One of my staff recently sent me a message on an online dating website. I was initially embarrassed but must admit that I do think he is very attractive. Is this a terrible idea? If so, how do I deal with the whole issue?
A Company rule books can't control physical attraction. It's entirely up to you whether to go on the date but you may be heading for disaster.
It isn't surprising so many relationships start through work. I know of 13 couples, currently employed in our office, and many Timpson shops such as Alfreton and Harlow are run by long term partners. B ...
Q I have been in the flower business for 20 years. My father was in the business before me. These days, I can't stand the sight of the things. Do you ever get shoe/key fatigue? If so, do you have any advice to help me shake off this boredom-induced aversion?
A I wonder whether you have ever loved the business. Perhaps you felt obliged to follow in your father's footsteps but secretly always wanted to be a barrister, a doctor or pursue some other career outside business.
If that's the case, it's never too late to hand over to someone else, leaving you free to achi ...
Q I will be 50 next year and due to leave the RAF after 24 years service. Although I am told that I come from “the best employer” in the world, there is this daunting factor that I will be looking for work at the age of 50.
I have read other articles on this subject and taken on board that although ageism in this country is illegal, employers can easily work around the law. I would like to know your views on the over 50s looking for work and would be grateful for some helpful hints as I embark on a life in civilian street.
A I believe great people come in all sh ...
Q Dear John, you've had incredible business success in your life. I'm curious to know what things are left that you still want to achieve?
A Every year Timpson faces a new challenge. In the 1960s the shops simply sold shoe repairs, shoe polish and laces. During the next 50 years, 90pc of the cobbling market disappeared so we diversified - into keys, engraving, watch repairs and recently dry cleaning.
In the next 12 months another service will be introduced - mobile phone repairs - the latest move to make our sales grow in a declining market, on a difficult high st ...
Q I was in Edinburgh recently to watch a rugby match and I noticed you have a lot of shops there. Have you considered how your business will be affected if Scotland becomes independent? For example, would you be paying lower rates or would Scotland be signing up to different European employment laws?
A Scotland plays an important part in the Timpson business. We have about 80 Scottish shops – all are profitable and some feature in our top 20 shops nationwide. The main secret of our Scottish success is to give control to the people north of the border; we tru ...
Q I know you train up many of your staff from scratch, in-house. Have we got UK apprenticeships set up on the right lines? What do you think about planned changes which would see businesses taking charge?
A We advertised a job in Dundee a few weeks ago and 531 people applied in one day – we picked Brian, who I rate 10/10. Brian applied because he knew we would teach him a trade.
In 2014 we plan to take on over 750 apprentices, who will all follow an in-house training programme developed by our team over the past 18 years. Nearly every colleague you see in ...
Q. My friend is having difficulty getting a good job because his face has rather a authority look, not the kindest face if you like, while he is a very good guy and hard worker. Some would refer to it as “troubled face”. Would you be able to advise me how to make it one of his strengths? I would like to help him as he deserves it.
A. Without meeting your friend it is difficult to imagine exactly what you mean by a troubled face but wonder whether that is the only reason he can't get a job.
If, as you say, he is a good guy, he must allow his personalit ...
Q I started my own business in 2010. For the first two years, I worked 12-hour days and weekends and after a few months, friends drifted away and I got used to being on my own.
Now I am finally in a position where I can delegate to my staff and start having a life outside of my business, but I'm having trouble letting go. How do you draw a line between work and your personal life? I'm worried I'll never get my friends back.
A I know how you feel, as in 1987 I finally took notice of my wife, Alex, who had been telling me for years that my life was full of nothi ...
Q We are a small business (hotel) employing about 10 staff, one of whom is 12 weeks' pregnant. We have gone out of our way to accommodate her condition, in that we have changed her job so that she does not have to carry out any heavy lifting, and made sure that she spends little time on her feet.
She is taking advantage of this, and is constantly absent without notice, or demands to go home early. Being a small team, it makes it difficult to plan rosters for staff. It is also a drain on our wage cost. Bearing in mind employment legislation, what could you advise ...
Q I have always wanted to run my own business. Recently, I was made redundant and I feel that if I don't do it now, I never will. People have told me to stick to my onions – I'm an accountant by trade – but I really want to try my hand at something new. Are there any sectors that are particularly ripe for innovation?
A I admire your ambition, but are you sure you're really cut out to run your own company?
Fortunately, you start with an advantage. Your accountancy experience with cash control, budgets, PAYE, and tax returns should ensure you can cope w ...
Q I saw you on television a few weeks ago and it was a few minutes before I realised that the man on the box was the same as the one who writes in The Daily Telegraph. Don't you think it is time you brought the picture in the paper up to date?
A A few friends have made the same point and at a dinner last month a business woman told me I looked nothing like the picture in the paper (she actually said, “You look a lot younger,” but was only being polite).
I wasn't bothered until Alex stepped in. “I threw out that pink shirt four years ago,” ...
Q Everyone's always banging on about the emerging markets. But can just any business set up shop in Brazil or China? Can you see yourself opening a Timpson's in Beijing?
A It's true, new markets are appearing all the time and every up-to-date business is expected to 'think global' but I make no apology for keeping all our business within easy distance of Wythenshawe.
I have just returned from New Zealand (Alex and I were completing another leg of what we call our geriatric gap year - over the next decade we intend to follow in the footsteps of our backpacking chi ...
Q We've seen various places try alternative currencies to boost local trade and FirstGroup buses have even started accepting the Bristol Pound. What do you make of these initiatives? Would you accept such a currency if it helped local high streets?
A You have to admire the determination of Bristol and other places such as Brixton, Lewes, Totnes and Stroud, who have developed their own currency to protect local business. But I am not sure the local pound will do any long-term good.
To be honest, I am struggling to work out whether the scheme will make much diff ...
Q I've just received an acquisition offer from a rival. The price is fair, but I do believe that in five years' time, my firm could be worth more. Who knows what might happen to the economy, or my competitor, by then? Should I hold out for a better offer or take the money and run?
A Only you really know whether and when to sell your business. To your professional advisers it's simply a question of money, but for you it is much more. You have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life.
Beware of the bankers and lawyers who are just looking for another dea ...
Q Ryanair posted its first profit warning this month after years of growth. Do you think this signals an end to the era of price at all costs and that perhaps a new age of "customer first" could be on its way in?
A I think, and certainly hope, you are right. Businesses and consumers seem to be realising that cut prices don't always produce a bargain. Perhaps Ryanair's profit drop is linked to their bottom rating in a recent Which? survey of customer service satisfaction? Their charges for extra and extra-large baggage, airport check-in, and in-flight food ar ...
Q I've just spotted Deborah Meaden from “Dragons' Den” on “Strictly Come Dancing”. I feel it heaps ridicule on British enterprise when successful business people turn into limelight-hungry publicity-seekers. What do you think?
A If I thought everyone in business should fight shy of publicity, I wouldn't be writing this column or have taken the risk last year of appearing on University Challenge. Personal participation in a high-profile event can be a particularly productive type of public relations. David Beckham does it, so why shouldn't De ...
Q I have just taken on a PR firm for my e-commerce business. According to these experts, I need to get on social media to raise the profile of my company. I loathe Twitter. Can I tell them this is out of the question, or has social media become mandatory for all those who run an online firm these days?
A I am with you when it comes to Twitter. No doubt it is an age thing, but I don't want to share my daily details with a host of phantom friends. I am equally wary about Facebook, I've seen how much of a teenager's time it can take and am fearful of what Facebook is ...
Q I'm thinking of going into partnership with a company in a complementary industry rather than starting from scratch myself. Have you ever done any joint ventures? What should I be wary of?
A You can spend a lot of time talking about a joint venture without ever reaching an agreement. In the 1980s, when we discussed merging with a fellow cobbler, I discovered that there is rarely such a thing as an equal partnership. We both agreed it made sense to get together, but we each assumed that we would become the boss. An attempt to set up a joint venture with a foreign d ...
Q A few weeks ago, following a discrepancy in our petty cash, we parted company with our office manager. She has been offered a new job by a local retailer who has asked me to supply a reference. I have heard that an ex-employee can sue if you supply a damaging reference, but someone else also told me that if I keep quiet the new employer could take me to court if they find their new recruit is dishonest. I feel I am on a hiding to nothing. What do I do?
A Employment law is a lot more sensible than some people seem to assume, but managers have created a lot of myth ...
Q I run a very small chain of children's shoe shops. Trading has been tough but we're doing OK. I'm finally about to launch a decent ecommerce site as well. What advice have you got for doing this in a way that doesn't disrupt my day-to-day high street operation?
A. Congratulations on finding success in one of the most difficult parts of the retail market.
Before I sold our shoe shops, 26 years ago, I took a special interest in the sale of children's shoes. I regarded it as a challenge. The game was to sell a full range of sizes in width fittings at two thirds the ...
Q Jane Austen is to be the new face on the £10 note. A good decision although I liked your choice of John Lewis. Who or what would be your choice for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square?
A I thought of several fanciful ideas like picking a big pigeon, a bulldog or even a statue of Boris, but eventually decided that the perfect person to put on the plinth is C Northcote Parkinson.
It is time we recognised the man whose Parkinson's Law contains more common sense than a library full of modern management books. He didn't just recognise that “work expand ...
Q What are your views on some companies making staff reapply for their own jobs? Is this a genuine management technique? Or is it a sign of bad management or a device dreamed up by HR to justify their own jobs?
A Although it is fashionable to blame HR executives for the tortuous way employment law leads to red tape, it is often the fault of the line managers who duck responsibility and let HR take control.
When a company has to make colleagues redundant, line managers tend to hand everything over to HR, who stick to the guidelines, produce a proper paper trail a ...
Q What's the best way to navigate through boardroom bust-ups in a family business? Have you ever had to do this at Timpson? I'm struggling to balance keeping harmony in the family and what's best for the direction of our company at the moment!
A I had my biggest boardroom row at an early age – and it nearly cut my career incredibly short.
The experience taught me some fairly fundamental lessons which, luckily I was able to put into practice a few years later.
In 1972 I was caught up in a classic case of family rivalry. There were two other family direct ...
QThese days we get worried about inflation of 2.9pc. I remember when it was well over 25pc in the 1970s. How did your business cope with such a crazy rise in wages and prices?
A Today it is difficult to maintain morale in a month when cash sales fall below last year (the recent heatwave has been bad news for cobblers). Forty years ago, we had a very different problem, with inflation running up to 26pc, so a shop that was 20pc up on the previous year was a poor performer.
Although I managed a business in the 1970s, it is difficult to imagine now what it was like ...
Q A recent board meeting I attended concentrated on financial figures. This seemed to give the executive directors an opportunity to snipe at each other. How are Timpson board meetings structured?
A. My first board meeting was in 1969. Since then, if you include all the charities and governing bodies, I must have been to more than 1,000 formal meetings, some dramatic, many humdrum, some surprisingly short and others unbelievably long.
I don't think I was ever suited to sit in a succession of meetings. During the last 44 years I've compiled a catalogue of pet hate ...
Q Sir Winston Churchill is replacing Elizabeth Fry on a new £5 note, to be issued from 2016. If you were in charge of the Bank of England, who would you make sure had their face on banknotes?
A Your excellent question led me to a lively discussion with Alex during most of a drive from Tarporley to Uppingham.
We ruled out early favourites Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Alexander Fleming, as they were all Scots and we can't be sure that Scotland will still be part of our economy in 2016.
We considered a long list of dead and famous can ...
Q Every week we get the release of statistics on some part of the economy, from one organisation or another. Do you think statistics and surveys are a help or a hindrance to good management?
A We all need numbers to measure our performance – they tell us where we stand in the corporate pecking order and hopefully provide reassurance that we are doing OK. We get guilty satisfaction whenever a competitor produces a poor set of figures. Bad news for one business is often good news for another.
Most executives scan the business pages hoping to spot statistics th ...
Q When you hire graduates, do you ever narrow down the CVs based on what degree they gained? I saw a report recently saying some employers are ignoring anyone who doesn't have a first.
A In June 1964, I was at Wollaton Park golf club celebrating the end of exams. I was chatting to one of the committee about my chances of a decent degree when he took off the pressure. “Hope you get a 2.2,” he said. “It shows you're not just a swot, 2.2s are the sort of chaps I want in my business.”
I remembered his words a few days later when the results re ...
Q I see the Government is considering bringing in the private sector to help it run some if its SME schemes. Do you think people with commercial experience can really make a difference?
A I am coming to the conclusion that the best way the government can help business is to leave us all alone.
In the 1970s, I was on the Footwear Economic Development Council, one of several sector committees created to help get British business back on track. Our job was to stop the decline in UK shoe making. For three years there were regular tripartite meetings between business, ...
Q I see that Malcolm Walker of Iceland has picked up a big tax bill because he took all his 800 store managers to a conference at Disneyworld. Do you think this is a good use of company money and if so should he have to pay tax?
A Malcolm Walker needed to transform his business and he went about it in some style. The trip to Disneyworld was the perfect way to show that Iceland was about to change for the better, particularly as far as the customer is concerned.
Two years ago, I had a behind-the-scenes tour that taught me how strongly customer care is ingrained ...
Q There's been a lot of hoo-ha in the news recently about working from home and whether it is a skiver's paradise or – as HR professionals try to tell us – it leads to better productivity. Yahoo!'s chief recently banned working from home, saying staff need to be present in the office to forge good ideas and networks. In retail, working from home has never really been practical but are there any retail roles in your experience that do merit home or remote working? Can you get more out of people by allowing them to pick and choose their hours?
A People emp ...
Q What do you make of these “discounts” companies ask for from suppliers for “early payment”? It seems to me they're being used as an excuse by some to squeeze the supply chain – one retailer has scrapped normal payment entirely, insisting suppliers take at least a small hit to be paid on 60 days, or a bigger one to be paid faster. Not cricket in my view, what do you think?
A The way a man does business says a lot about his character. What might be seen as fair play by one could be called unethical trading by another.
A simple circ ...
Q Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement as Manchester United's manager last week led me to think about succession. I was surprised to see him take on a role as “director and ambassador” at the club. Given his enormous success, I would have thought a clean break would be better for the new manager. When long-standing bosses step down, isn't it better to step away completely? Or can hanging around in the background be useful?
A When the Lord Mayors of London end their year of office they pack up, totally disappear from the Mansion House and leave their successor al ...
Q Last week we saw Rentokil finally selling off its "problem child" business City Link for a £1. When an acquisition goes wrong, how do you know when to call it a day?
A I was visiting some of our shops in Kent last week with Charlie, the area manager, when he made an interesting observation. "If I find I am not looking forward to a particular visit I know that shop probably has a problem," he said.
The same applies to bits of a business. When a subsidiary starts to struggle it ceases to be fun, especially if there is a significant drain ...
Q I've hired some excellent young people over the years and continue to do so. Sadly, I'm frequently amazed at their poor level of spelling, grammar and basic arithmetic. Have you encountered this problem? How do you tackle it?
A Satnav, calculators, emails and the lack of handwritten letters have created a generation who can't spell, don't bother to add up and think Glasgow is somewhere near Leeds.
But if you ever want to solve a problem with your computer or iPad, ask someone under 16: they are word perfect. Some failed at school or perhaps their school faile ...
Q The EU has proposed that businesses that make staff redundant should be obliged to help them find a job elsewhere. A compassionate idea or a waste of companies' time?
A Good employers should do their best to help anyone made redundant, but the main priority is to care for those who continue to work for their business.
The EU may have good intentions, but by putting extra obligations on a hard-pressed business they could make matters worse. There are plenty of ways companies can help. Simply showing an interest will make a difference, especially if it extends ...
Q Can you divulge any interesting or amusing events in your company board meetings? I presume you do not just record the numbers of keys cut each month?
A Board meetings aren't meant to be full of fun but I can understand why you asked your question. I still have nightmares about the tedious times I spent around various board tables. If my experience is anything to go by, millions of management hours must be wasted every month in nit-picking meetings that delve into the detail but fail to provide the inspiration and encouragement most companies need.
I plead gu ...
Q I see police officers are being asked to declare any second jobs they’ve taken. I once had a problem with a "moonlighting" staff member who had taken on a second job as a security guard – when I confronted him, he said it was OK because he could sleep while doing it. My conclusion was that he wasn’t providing much security, and I was still getting a tired employee, so I sacked him. Have you ever had a similar problem? If so how did you approach it?
A I wouldn’t stand in the way of someone who is so keen to earn money they are will ...
Q I expect the recent spell of extreme weather will feature later this year in a few company reports as an excuse for poor results. Does the weather make a difference to your sales?
A Of course, the weather influences our business, especially when breakfast TV presenters wake up the country with talk of treacherous conditions causing schools to close for health and safety reasons and motorists not risking a short drive to the shops.
But bad news for one business can be good news for another. We like lots of rain — it shows the holes in your soles and helps s ...
Q I've been running my own printing business for the past three years. I'm 25, and the idea of corporate life or a normal job doesn't appeal – but my role is getting so stressful I'm losing sleep. I have two employees who depend on me and yet the order book is drying up. Half of me wants to pull out altogether and get a normal job, the other half tells me to keep going. What's your advice for staying calm, managing stress and keeping the business afloat during tough trading conditions?
A You are not alone. I expect there are thousands of people, running their ...
Q With the Budget coming up on Wednesday, what one thing would you ask the Chancellor to do to make it easier for retailers or small businesses right now?
A The best way George Osborne can help businesses (big or small) is to ignore most of the advice from bankers, bishops or business schools and do as little as possible. His previous Budgets were designed to set the scene for recovery and I believe they are starting to work. The way to restore much needed confidence is to stick to the plan and resist any temptation to try anything else.
But I do have one big ...
Q I am a widow whose daughter has taken over the running of our company following the sudden death of her father. I have never been involved in the business but I am fearful that she's not yet ready for the job. I want her to be successful, but I also need her to be, as the company pays my pension.
A I can understand your predicament, you don't want to interfere but need to know whether your daughter has an instinctive feel for the business.
You are the main shareholder and as such it would be sensible to be represented in the boardroom. Perhaps you are already tech ...
Q Why do you think British businesses have been so reticent about selling equity compared to our American neighbours? Do you think this is a bad thing – many commentators suggest it is inhibiting the growth of our most promising businesses?
A If growth is being stifled the cause is more likely to be banks being reluctant to lend rather than businesses reticent about selling equity.
There are lots of differences between business here and across the Atlantic. I welcome the way Americans applaud enterprise and celebrate entrepreneurs. In the UK, it only seems O ...
Q Following last week's appeal court victory for a graduate who was forced to work at Poundland for free, do you think it's wrong to force unemployed people to work for nothing if they're to keep their state benefits?
A I can understand the general reluctance to give benefit claimants “something for nothing” and the desire to give everyone work experience but I would not force anyone to take an unpaid job.
It is time to face up to the fact that people differ in their ability and attitude. Whether it is due to their genes or upbringing, some are not rig ...
Q I've never understood why consumers bought gift vouchers, it just seems like reducing the value and flexibility of their money to me. With the added risk of shops going bust, do you think consumers are going to lose interest in them? And do you offer Timpson vouchers? The recent controversy over HMV and Jessops vouchers hasn't done much for their credibility.
A Gift vouchers perform a useful purpose but recent retail failures have given them a bad name.
Vouchers are good for lazy shoppers, particularly when the recipient is “difficult to buy for”. If ...
Q Unemployment figures keep falling. Do you get a sense that the economy is turning a corner or is something else going on?
A I made the mistake in October of confusing a couple of weeks of bumper business with the first green shoots of a growth market. I should have known better, as soon as my optimistic forecast was printed in this column, sales slipped back and since then business has been at the unexciting level we have seen since 2008.
But I remain confident and regard the triple dip as a technical term created by statistical anoraks and welcomed by media doo ...
Q If you had a magic wand, what would you do to improve the service that high street banks provide to their business customers?
A My simple answer is to give more authority, trust and freedom to local bank managers. Today, too many decisions are referred to head office where faceless bean counters use inflexible ratios to decide the facilities they offer to customers they've never met face to face.
The safety of most loans depends on people, not spread sheets. It is more important for a banker to meet the management team than to analyse a computer generated bus ...
Q I work in an established family business which has just hired a non-family chief executive for the first time. All well and good, but I can’t stand the man’s management style – he’s so "process-driven". I feel like we waste half of our time on interminable meetings and bureaucracy. What’s the best way to tell my new boss some awkward home truths?
A You don’t say why the family has brought in an outsider. If he has been recruited to rescue a struggling company his sharp shift in executive style may well be overdue. Perh ...
Q You've recalled that 20 years ago you predicted the EU would “end in tears”. What do you make of the current talk of Britain eventually having a more informal free trade relationship with Europe?
A I did indeed suggest the EU would have an unhappy ending and see no reason to change my mind. The Common Market was established for the right reasons. In a world stifled by tariff barriers, a free trade area was a welcome boost for exporters and importers, and the spirit of co-operation has brought an unprecedented period of peace in Europe.
If it had simp ...
Q I am keen to reward and motivate my colleagues by giving them a contribution from the company's profits. Should it be paid monthly or annually? Should it be for individual performance or for group performance? What are the risks I must try to avoid?
A Bonus schemes are a brilliant way to put buzz into your business but if you get them wrong they can cost money and demolish morale. Find a system that works and stick with it – good incentives keep running for years.
The bonus that operates in our branches has hardly changed since 1990. We make the same calcu ...
QThere is a lot of talk about the high street and ecommerce coming together through things like "click and collect" where you order online then pick up the goods when you do your shopping. What do you make of this? I assume this doesn’t apply to your shops? Is it a threat
or opportunity for the high street?
A I can still remember the coffee aroma in Cadman’s the independent grocer in Hale, Cheshire when my mother called to place her weekly order, which was delivered to our house the following day.
The modern concept of "click and collect ...
Q Are you ever surprised by levels of basic numeracy and literacy that Timpson recruits have? Do you test for it, or ever need to provide training that should really be the job of schools?
A I stood in amazement the other day when a young lad at a local petrol station had to use a calculator to add up the total cost of a Mars bar and a packet of crisps.
There is not much totting up to be done in a shoe repair shop and we are happy to accommodate someone with a genuine literacy problem but we avoid potential recruits who are clearly too lazy to learn.
We don't ...
Q My business has had a much better last quarter than we budgeted for. Am I getting ahead of myself or should I expect this trend to continue?
A Sometime, someone has to say it and that person might as well be me, so I will say it now. "Business is getting better and things are on the move."
I know I am taking the risk that trade will take a turn for the worse the moment this column goes to print, but it is about time the doom-mongers were put in their place by a positive piece about the economic upturn that has already started.
My comments are not ...
Q Man management and team work are basic skills in any successful company or organisation. How would you have handled the Kevin Pieterson problem which has plagued England's cricket team in recent months? What about the Twitter problems that are plaguing football teams? There are key people in business who need controlling and motivating in a better way than our sports teams appear capable of.
A It is difficult and dangerous to compare sport to business but I am prepared to take that risk.
There is a limit to how much you can forgive an irresponsible superstar &nd ...
Q What do you make of George Osborne's shares for rights idea? A good way for small businesses to grow with the help of staff or a fudge of two very different issues – employment regulations and shared ownership?
A Once, when I had nothing better to do, I compiled a list of irritating business phrases which included “let's run this up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it” (translation ’here is my latest idea which I won't take seriously unless people say they like it').
This idea is in the flagpole category.
It may be wise to wait a ...
Q I am in dispute with a company that is a member of a trade association that promises conciliation of disagreements with their members. This appears to amount to nothing other than replying to a letter and promising to bring the matter up with their member. Since then, nothing, despite several emails and calls. I realise who pays the wages of the trade association, but why advertise a service you don't intend to honour if you feel it might upset your member firm. What do I do next? Are trade associations worthwhile?
A My first taste of a trade association was in 1 ...