In Business Hell For Leather

For real insights into how a business thinks and works, go round a supermarket with the boss. Not the manager of the store, but the chief executive of the whole operation.

With the best CEOs, it’s like tramping a farm with the farmer who’s looked after the land for years: a stream of illuminating thoughts about things a random visitor would hardly notice: how the cheeses are displayed, how the special offer of the week is doing, how much expensive stock is tied up on shelves that are designed for bulky cereal packets but also have to hold expensive slimline toiletries.

They say that retail is detail; it’s impressive when a chief executive gets out of HQ and starts finding out for him or herself. (And quite a lot of top supermarket managements do it all the time.)

I spent a day recently on the road with John Timpson. Not a supermarket boss (and not the late “Today” presenter either). He’s the head of the family firm Timpson’s, more than 600 small shops scattered across Britain that do shoe and watch repairs, key cutting, engraving, and various other things: local service centres.

He is chairman of Timpson’s; his son James is managing director. Both of them travel, relentlessly. Most of the trips are to drop in on stores all over the country, to see first hand what’s happening and to scout for new property possibilities.

John Timpson is known for his straightforward method of running a business. I wanted to see him in action because he’s set his management principles down in two very readable books.

“Dear James” is a kind of handover note to his son, written when he stepped up to became chairman 10 years ago.

The new book is “How to Ride a Giraffe”, so called because that animal is what the firm feels like to some of the people who work for it: a strange thing, but it works.

As I expected (and as you will hear in the programme) the day out was indeed illuminating. John Timpson simply does not tire of finding out what’s happening to individual store businesses, and the people who work there.

Within seconds of arrival (and greeting the staff by name) he’s scanning the latest daily store accounts, compared with the same time last year. It’s a fixation, and not just to the boss.

Timpson’s branch staff are all in line for a bonus. It’s paid not yearly or quarterly, but weekly. Their pay reflects immediately how well the branch has done.

That is a very important element of the way Timpson is run. John calls it Upside Down Management, and it has a lot to teach other kinds of businesses.

In essence, UDM tries to turn the traditional structure of a firm on its head. The organisation chart shows the bosses at the bottom and the workers on top (they are, of course, called “colleagues”).

This is not just company bull, or that familiar corporate mantra “People are our most important asset”. It has taken years for the Timpsons to build a business which genuinely respects and seeks out idea from the people who work in the branches.

Watch repairs was one such idea, pooh–poohed for a long time because who would believe that cobblers could also fix watches?

When Timpson take over another chain, the first things to go are the electronic point of sale machines. That sounds a bit retroactive.

But epos tills mean that head office runs the branches. Upside Down Management means that the people in the branches have the power to vary prices for their own particular circumstances, offer deals.

Here’s a business genuinely trying to show its staff that business decisions are grounded in the branches, moderated or incentivised by the weekly bonus plan.

Some people think that this is far too paternalistic, and Timpson makes no bones about being a family business, not a plc.

The last time we made a programme about this unconventional management, I visited the internationally famous Eden Project in Cornwall to hear about what the founder Tim Smit calls “monkey business”.

This inspirational leader had a sudden crisis one weekend when a vital backer demanded a management statement from him, the kind of thing all well run businesses are supposed to have. Tim Smit sat down and wrote Monkey Business, a series of unorthodox and very personal leadership ideas, and when he talked about them on air, there was a shudder of interest from listeners. These mavericks have a lot to teach conventional organisations, if conventional organisations know how to listen.

Peter Day

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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