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 ...
Q I measure my retail company’s performance against external yardsticks but I am confused by the various retail statistics on offer. One month this year most figures stated that trade was poor (just like my business), but one report said the opposite. Is there one which you use and can recommend?
A I too have been a bit bewildered. A few years ago, one set of official statistics declared April to be "the best increase ever" only to announce four weeks later that "May was the worst month since records began".
The sharp contrast was partly ...
Q Supermarkets are interested in my food brand, which is selling well in independent retailers. I'd love to grow but handling bigger production is a big leap and I don't like the idea of waiting months to get paid. What should I weigh up when deciding whether to take the plunge?
A Why do you want to expand into supermarkets? Do you want to get bigger, become better known or do you see it as a way to make a lot more money? Think carefully, you may do a lot more business and fail to achieve any of these objectives.
Most supermarkets expect to pay a lower price than ...
Q The golf club that told players that golf buggies were not health and safety authorised; a boots supplier claiming that it was banned from accepting dirty boots for return; cafés and restaurants refusing to heat up baby food – all supposed examples of "elf and safety" that were, in fact, examples of firms erroneously using red tape as an excuse to refuse service.
What’s your view on this country’s health and safety rules – any horror stories that have got in the way of you running your company, or is the "elf and safe ...
Q For many years I ran a modest business dealing in modern furniture and accessories, selling to department stores and specialist retailers. It is now run by my son. Turnover suffered recently so I continually urge him to get out of the office and visit customers. He maintains that retail is dead in the water, the internet is all powerful and prefers to concentrate his efforts on the contract side of the business where the eventual rewards can be interesting but the process is complicated – and with no guarantee of a result. Is he missing a trick by spending too mu ...
Q I have read how you manage and measure the success of your business. Cash is king and performance is compared to last year on a weekly basis. Does your wife Alex manage and measure the success of her racehorses in the same way?
A Winning The Grand National is highly lucrative, but coming first in a weekday meeting at Wetherby doesn't win you enough money to show a profit. Owning racehorses isn't a business, it's a hobby, but at least it is cheaper than buying a football club. The sums are simple. Training fees, the vet, transport, the jockey's fee and other bits l ...
Q Do you think Sir Richard Branson should have done more to keep the West Coast Rail franchise?
A First, I must declare a personal interest. I am a regular traveller between Crewe and Euston and Virgin have done a great job. The Branson character came across; we are made to feel like customers not just passengers. Last week, as I was nearing home, the train manager announced: "Today and for the next 124 days I am delighted to be able to announce that we are approaching the cultural capital of Crewe, and, to give you an element of surprise, we are two minutes e ...
Q I'm about to step down from running my family business and I'm not sure my only child – my 30 year-old daughter – is truly excited by the idea of taking the helm, although she insists she's ready. I'm considering hiring an outside manager instead. Did you ever consider an outside solution for the senior position your son holds in your company? Will Timpson always have a family member at the helm?
A Last year a business school suggested the economy would benefit if family business owners relinquished control and appointed professional managers. I couldn ...
If this month's gloomy trade figures are anything to go by, the Government has a long way to go in its plan to get more companies selling overseas. Why haven't you tested the Timpson brand abroad?
I wouldn't be an effective ambassador for exports. Some businesses, like Bentley, Dyson and Pret A Manger, are right to expand overseas, but we believe that opening a Timpson shop outside the British Isles would be a step too far.
Even if French and Italian consumers require exactly the same type of key cutting and watch repairs (which they do not) we would have to solve ...
Q After months of putting it off, I have decided I need to cut some roles from my business. I have tried everything to avoid this, including shorter working weeks, but I'm just not getting the orders I thought I would, and now I have to let some people go. How do you approach redundancies and consultation periods?
A I expect you will take advice from professionals but don't let them dictate the way you run the business. To a lawyer, your employees are just numbers on the payroll, you know them as individuals. As a boss you have a moral duty to show decency with comm ...
Q I went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and they were fantastic. The transport worked well and I can still see the smiling faces on helpful Aussie volunteers. One week into London 2012, do you feel like our Games will match my Australian experience?
A “It will be a nightmare,” said my taxi driver ten days ago. “If you can't go in an Olympic lane you will never get where you want to go”
We went to the Basketball arena expecting the worst. Our train from St. Pancras took seven minutes and we were greeted by several smiling volunteers keen to ...
The management column: straight-talking, common sense from the front line with John Timpson.
You spend a lot of time on high streets. What one thing could help revive those facing flagging fortunes?
A lot has already been said, particularly by Mary Portas, about the general problems facing the high street. I sympathise with the usual list of grumbles about car parking charges and business rates – free rates for the first 12 months would encourage new tenants to occupy empty shops – but we have a fundamental problem. There are simply too many shops.
Straight-talking, common sense from the front line with John Timpson.
Watching G4S boss Nick Buckles struggle in front of MPs last week made me wonder how I'd handle a PR disaster in my business. Have you ever had a publicity nightmare?
I can only remember one major Timpson disaster. It happened in 1953, before my career started and well before anyone had to face Jeremy Paxman, The Sun, or Consumer Watchdogs.
Our retail shops had a spectacular winner on its hands, a children's' bootee slipper with a pocket on the right leg carrying a toy gun.
We bought 250,000 ...
John Timpson's call for business owners to support 'Trading for Good' has been met with a deluge of responses.
John Timpson's call for business owners to support Trading for Good, a scheme to “show the world an inspirational face”of business, has been met with a deluge of responses from Daily Telegraph readers.
Mr Timpson used his column last week to highlight the initiative, which promotes businesses doing positive work in their community, and to call for the good that companies do to be recognised to balance the “barrage of negative news about b ...
I wish to do something fairly unfashionable, I want to talk about good news. Recently, while in the USA, I met Jeremiah and Paula, young relatives who have just moved to live and work in San Francisco.
"It’s great," said Jeremiah. "What a difference," added Paula, "everyone is so full of positivity."
I returned home to find another barrage of negative news about business – media complaints about bankers, bonuses, fraudulent practice and fat cat bosses that give employees a rough deal.
You can’t be nice to everyone all ...
What do you regard as your biggest single business mistake?
I have made so many errors it is difficult to pick which one to confess in this column. I have chosen a mistake made many years ago – in the passage of time personal failings become less embarrassing, and anyway, I was a young man at the time.
Most of my mistakes involved people – failing to recruit the ideal candidate, picking the wrong man for the job, and hanging on to colleagues doing desperate damage to the company. Too often I hoped they would get better. I was desperately keen to avoid ...
The difference in the quality of customer services provided by retailers in my home town is amazing. It is so obvious where staff have been well-recruited and properly trained. These are the shops which are doing well. Why isn't it obvious to the losers?
I agree with your observations – I sometimes see something similar in my own business. The colleagues who provide the best service create the biggest turnover and make the most money.
The pride that comes with every customer compliment is quickly forgotten whenever I get a complaint – it hurts to hear ...
Q One of my young managers made an honest but rather stupid mistake that’s cost us a big bit of business. It’s not the first time he’s dropped the ball so I felt I had to give him a formal warning in the hope he’ll pay more attention. What’s the worst mistake someone in your business has made and what did you do?
A No one is perfect, we all make a few ’genuine’ mistakes and I have made more than most, but some people are just too accident prone to put it down to bad luck.
I can look back and smile at some of our most memor ...
I own an upmarket ladies dress shop selling outfits from Paris and Milan, as well as the UK. As the prospect of the eurozone breaking up becomes more realistic, should I be doing something now?
I haven’t a clue where the eurozone crisis is heading, but it’s probably better knowing that you don’t know rather than pretending to have the answer to a situation no one seems to understand.
Twenty years ago I said the EU would end in tears. I could see the point in Europeans being nice to each other rather than waging war, but once they started telling ...
Q. The Beecroft review has suggested changes to employment rules, such as reducing the consultancy period for redundancies and relaxing employment tribunal rules. Would these changes really make you or any other employer more likely to take on staff, as the Government is claiming?
A. Plenty of pressing problems are more likely to limit the level of employment, such as the availability of finance and confidence in the economy.
But a hint of red tape being reduced would help, and will indicate that government understands how business works.
I got a reality che ...
Q. I'm writing a dissertation on motivation, focusing on racecourse management where much of the work is outsourced. How can racecourse managers motivate employees who are working at the venue for a short period of time?
A. A racecourse which only opens for business on 20 or so race days a year is faced with a major challenge. How can they provide their punters with a proper service when the bookmakers, barmen, burger bars and those behind the buffet table only turn up for the day?
I see a lot of racecourses in my role as a financial supporter and husband of a ra ...
Q: Do you ever speak to former staff who have set up in competition to you to find out why?
A: Compared with most other retailers, we have a very low percentage of voluntary leavers but every year a few decide to set up their own shop.
We encourage our area team to stay in touch and when in the area I make a point of popping in to their new business to say "Hello". Many tell me "I felt I owed myself the chance to prove I could go it alone". Some have been successful and I am still calling to see them as much as 20 years later. For others a year is enough to prove that l ...
Q In a previous column you’ve talked about giving your employees an attendance bonus and how successful this was. We have tried this in our business, but have been shouted down by cries that it is unfair. Could you explain further how you overcame objections?
A Questions such as "what if the employee was late for a genuine reason?" and "what if an employee presents themselves at work with an infectious disease rather than lose the bonus?" were common. They come into the category of "they would say that wouldn’t they".
Q. I have read that Timpson employs more prison leavers than any other company in the UK and that you select them on their personalities. This sounds admirable but rather risky. Would you recommend other employers follow your lead?
A. Our involvement with ex-offenders started nine years ago when my son James was helping to organise a conference in Thorn Cross, a prison near Warrington. James was so impressed with Matt, the guy who showed him round, he handed over his business card saying "get in touch when you get out and I will find you a job". Matt now m ...
Q: Do you supply a company car to your area managers and if so what influences the options you offer them?
A: Although I, myself, am not particularly interested in cars I recognise most of our Area Managers are. Their motor is priority number 2 after owning a nice house, and they want the keys to a car they can be proud of, especially if it is the envy of their neighbours. It is well worth trying to fulfil their dreams, but there is no need to buy everyone a Bentley!
We don't force them all to drive the identical model in the same colour. They can have pretty much what they fancy as long ...
Q: I hear that business rates are due to rise by 5.6pc this April, which is the last thing our chain of four high street shops needs. It must be adding a fair old chunk to your costs or do you benefit from reliefs because your shops are often quite small?
A: During my early years in business the average level of our shop rates was 30% of the rent. Last month we pulled out of opening a new shop, where the landlord was offering a competitive deal, because the rates were twice the rent. As a result there is yet another empty shop on the High Street.
Over the last five years common sense has ...
Q: When I was skiing in Austria recently nearly half the guys on the chair lift were tapping away at their BlackBerries. Do you think it is right to mix business and pleasure in this way?
A: Posers using BlackBerrries on the button lift can be pretty irritating, but I bet it gives a lot of pleasure whenever an unfortunate captain of industry drops his vital little device in the snow. I suppose some may simply be arranging to meet with the rest of their party for lunch but most will be addicted to open every e mail from the office within seconds of seeing the flash of a red light.
I feel s ...
Q: What is the best way to communicate annual pay rises in the current climate?
A: There can seldom have been an easier time to announce the latest pay deal. Everyone knows that times are tough so, despite the pressures on your employees' domestic budget, a pay rise of 1% or nothing at all won't come as a big surprise. Accompany the communication with some background to your current trading, but don't try to be clever, tell them the truth.
The general percentage increase may be modest but don't kid yourself. Your employment costs will still rise due to the inevitable 'wage creep' caused by ...
Q: One member of my team is lippy and I feel he is undermining me as the manager in front of my team. I can fault his work but he is influencing the others. I hate confrontrations but feel I need to law down the law. What would you do?
A: There are two people in the business you need to worry about, the guy who is talking behind your back, and, of much more significance, yourself. If you are so reluctant to face up to a confrontation I wonder whether you are in the right job.
Perhaps this is your big chance to take a practical course in assertiveness by tackling the problem head on. It is ...
Q What were the highs and lows of the last year for you?
A This time last year our shops were suffering in the snow, we were two weeks away from a 2.5pc increase in VAT and prospects for the economy looked bleak. Like other retailers we wondered how to make the best of a bad market.
Experience of several cycles has taught me you can't control profit. Managers have screwed up many a good business by trying to supply short-term satisfaction to shareholders and the City. When turnover falls you are almost bound to make less money. By all means economise but stick to you ...
Q. A recent academic study suggests that family businesses would benefit from some more professional management and that it is often dangerous to hand over control to a son or daughter. Don't you think that at a certain size every family company needs the experience of a properly trained top team?
I wonder what criteria academics use to define a professional manager. I suspect they envisage an executive who follows best practice with a fair dose of good governance, risk assessment, appraisals and KPIs.
Business schools are bound to preach the importance of a prop ...
Q. The world of football is seemingly unable to get to grips with racism. Have you ever had to tackle this issue in the workplace and how would you advise Sepp Blatter?
A. Sepp Blatter is out of touch, which is bad enough when he stands in the way of action replays and then awards the World Cup to improbable locations, but when he appears insensitive to racial abuse it is time to put the good of football ahead of his desire to hang on as FIFA President.
I checked with Gouy, our People Support director, hoping that racism doesn’t exist at Timpson. I was reass ...
Q As a long established employer, if there was one thing you would like the Chancellor to do in his autumn statement, what would it be?
A I don't envy George Osborne. I studied Economics at Nottingham University where I got a reasonable grasp of supply and demand curves but when it came to Macro Economics (lectures that covered interest rates, balance of payments, GNP and inflation) I was confused. I never really understood how the economy works and now wonder whether anyone does.
The mystery ingredient seems to be confidence. Whatever happens with the Euro, at Th ...
Q. Do you see merit in issuing bonds to customers as a way of raising money and building loyalty? I’d far rather pay a coupon to my customers than the bank. And as King of Shaves and John Lewis have shown, if you also hand out free shaving products and discounts it can prove a very attractive investment.
A. I applaud the initiative shown by King of Shaves’ Will King who has found a novel way to create cash with the bonus of giving his company positive PR. At a time when it is best not to need to borrow from the bank smart businesses give cash flow a big ...
Q. What is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?
A. I wish no one had ever suggested it was worth opening a shoe repair shop on Wardour Street right in the middle of Soho, but I only have myself to blame.
I looked at the site three times before giving the go-ahead, and on every occasion the area was buzzing with people. I saw them all as potential customers – especially for the repair of stilettos – their slim heels quickly wear out.
When the shop opened I quickly discovered my mistake. Our kind of multi-service shop wasn't providing ...
Q How has your IT spend been affected by tight budgets and have your thoughts on all this hosted IT systems marketing that we get bombarded with been affected by the recent collapse of BT's business broadband?
A As soon as I read your question I went into our IT department to find out more. As I looked around the modest office with Paul and his team of five looking after all our IT needs I knew we weren't overstaffed. “We don't do that many new projects,” said Paul, “so there's not a lot of potential cost to cut”
Although IT is not at the ...
Q We’ve cut our training budgets for the last two years and while everyone has noticed, no one has complained. Given our long list of other priorities I just can’t see it coming back any time soon. Are we alone in adopting this approach?
A In these difficult times most companies need to cut costs to improve short-term cash flow, and many have found the training budget provides a pretty painless way to save money. But beware, it could be a short-sighted move that does long-term damage.
Fine, if you can cut the cost of training without bothering the busi ...
Q. How do you keep your over-60s motivated? We don’t have a dedicated human resources function and I personally find it
difficult to approach long-serving staff to tell them that they need to make more effort.
A. If you need to tell people to make more effort you have probably got the wrong people.
This isn’t a question of age – your business should be able to inspire every colleague however old they are. If the business is exciting, it will stimulate anyone with a positive personality.
Employees don’t suddenly go off the boil just beca ...
Q Last year all our young male office staff started wearing cardigans on a cold day. This year we have already seen tight knitwear, and even more frightening, roll neck sweaters. Why can't they stick to a suit? At a push I can cope with a smart tank top.
A I can understand why you want to keep up appearances – casual clothing is sometimes a sign of a slack workplace, but it depends what business you are in. Bankers are expected to stay fairly formal, especially if they are meeting customers, but it is fine for an advertising office to dress down all week.