Old-fashioned values remain popular at the national repair and dry-cleaning chain, and the firm has been independently rated as one of the UK’s top places to work. Jenny Keefe reports
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Bill Platt loves a woman in high heels. Not least, because as people person at shoe repairer Timpson, he sees profits soar whenever stilettos are in vogue.
“Stilettos run on a twenty year cycle. At the moment, the shops are full of them, but sooner or later flat shoes come back. [And] they don’t need as much repairing, you get a lot more wear out of them,” he explains.
Dating back to 1865, the firm has seen many a trend come and go. William Timpson, great-grandfather of current chairman, John Timpson, started the business as a shoe makers in Manchester. The business grew to open its first shoe repair shop in 1903 and now cuts keys, fixes watches, dry cleans and engraves jewellery.
In keeping with the firm’s old school values, Platt hates the word HR: his department is still called personnel. Last year, the firm took the risky step of splitting the department down the middle, separating the administrative arm from the more social, people side. Platt heads up the latter, meeting up with employees face-to-face, offering support and organising outings. “It’s about making people feel good,” he says.
And feel good they do: Timpson has featured in the top 10 of The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work for for the past five years. It just goes to show it’s not a load of old cobblers and Timpson makes its 1,700 workers feel right at home. “By offering these benefits, you get a lot more trust out of people. It’s good for morale and helps you to feel like part of the family,” says Platt.
The firm puts store in good old fashioned family values. The Sunday Times’ 2005 survey found that 79% of employees believe the firm is run on sound moral principles. There is a hardship fund for staff who fall on tough times, if, for example, their boiler bursts or their car breaks down. “People can take loans for a year at a 5% interest rate. But it’s not a bank, it’s just the occasional [loan] and it has got to be severe hardship,” adds Platt.
Staff can also apply for sponsorship for community activities. “We have a mythical figure called Captain Cash who gives out sponsorship money. It could be for anything: a charity climb up Kilimanjaro or new shirts for a local football team,” says Platt.
When the business celebrated its centenary two years’ ago, it granted all workers a day’s paid leave on their birthday, a benefit which has now become a permanent fixture. “It was to celebrate one hundred years initially but things just carried on.”
The firm also has a flexible working policy and offers generous maternity benefits, including a £25 Mothercare voucher for new parents and a £20 trouser allowance for expectant mums. Nevertheless, it still finds attracting women to the industry a challenge and 80% of staff are men. “There is a philosophy here that we are open to everyone and to be honest the work doesn’t attract that many women.” While some women may be initially put off by shoe repairing’s image, Platt adds: “those it does attract stay.”
The firm makes sure that children and partners also benefit from perks. “If you get married, you receive a £100 cheque and an extra week’s paid holiday for your honeymoon,” says Platt. And should the family want to take time out, staff with more than five years’ service can take a vacation on the house. Timpson owns four holiday homes, in Blackpool, Bournemouth, Spain and Turkey. “They can use them free of charge and it’s on a first-come first-served basis, with preference given to families.”
Throughout Timpson, blood, it seems, is thicker than water; it recruits an astonishing 47% of new staff through its introduce a friend scheme. Hence dads and sons, aunts and nephews, often end up working side by side. “There’s not only the Timpson family connection, but there are many family connections in stores and uncles working around the place,” says Platt.
Through the scheme, employees get £150 bonus if they recommend a new recruit who stays in the job for sixteen weeks. The amount rises to £400 if the friend completes a year’s service.
Platt says it’s a fair trade off: staff get a nice payout and Timpson gets its pick of the best recruits. “The current member of staff wants the new person to be here and thinks they are reliable, otherwise they would be risking their own reputation.”
Now that the chain has its fingers in so many pies, training staff in the relevant crafts is top of its agenda. “We have a staff turnover of just 22%, which is important as people don’t just come in here and start repairing shoes and cutting keys, they have to learn skills,” says Platt. Last year, the company spent £3 million on training and staff receive a pay increase with each new level of skill they achieve. “It’s very motivational,” he adds.
Timpson workers can also take advantage of several weird and wonderful unique benefits. On the first day of summer, employees are treated to an ice cream. And when the Timpson’s tie-o-meter (or thermometer) reaches a certain temperature, staff are allowed to take their company ties off at work and are given free soft drinks. Workers also get a bottle of bubbly to mark the milestone birthdays, 18, 21, 30, 40, 50 and 60, and everyone receives a birthday card.
Platt attributes Timpson’s happy family to the chairman’s hands-on approach. Every year, staff are selected at random to have dinner with John Timpson at his house and he writes 30 letters a year to employees.
Staff are kept firmly in the loop, with a thick weekly newsletter that is published every weekend, come rain or shine. “The newsletter is compiled at Timpson House, it is distributed every single week and there are no secrets. It tells you exactly how your area is doing and how the business is doing. There can be no excuses for that not going out,” Platt says. Workers are kept up to speed on issues such as profits, benefits and promotions and can read about days in the life of other staff members.
One of Platt’s current pet projects is compiling a who’s who profile of every Timpson employee, with photos and details about their hobbies and interests.
Timpson bosses are skilled in the art of delegation, giving each manager individual responsibility for many of the benefits in his or her area. There is no one-size-fits all approach, so managers can tailor prizes and team outings to each member of staff. “Some firms just give out high street vouchers to all staff but here it’s more that the area managers award them so they are more personalised. Some will take teams tenpin bowling, others will go greyhound racing. We’ve also had people clay pigeon shooting, go-carting and paint balling.”
Above all, employees are told to do “anything possible to ensure that customers receive the best level of service”. They are awarded a great deal of trust, another of Platt’s favourite words, to make decisions about how best to serve customers.
“People want to work here, people want to come to work and it’s a positive frame of mind all round.” He hopes that by treating employees in this way, they will treat the customers in kind. Or in other words: do unto your staff as you would have your staff do unto your customers.
Bill Platt has a knack for getting people to create roles especially for him. Last year, he was appointed Timpson’s first ever people person, responsible for the welfare of 1,700 staff. Concentrating on the fun side of HR while someone else deals with admin and the legislative aspects of the job, he deals directly with staff – whether it be organising team events or lending a shoulder to cry on.
Before that, he was Timpson’s first full-time health and safety officer, a post that involved ensuring that employees were trained to manage dangerous equipment and that machinery was regularly inspected.
Prior to joining Timpson, Platt started out in the NHS but admits that: “I got disillusioned, it was in the very early 1980s.”
He believes he’s now in his dream job, a position dedicated to “making staff feel good”.
At 18, trainee branch assistant David North is on the first rung of Timpson’s training ladder.
North, who has been with the firm for just under a year, is looking forward to celebrating his 19th birthday in style with a day’s leave: a perk which he will be eligible for after 12 months’ service. “I wasn’t eligible last year as I hadn’t been with the company long enough, but it’s great that you get a day off and still get paid,” he says.
The fledgling cobbler adds that some of the best benefits at Timpson are the team activities and outings, ranging from paint balling to clay pigeon shooting – organised by area managers. “The Timpson football day is a really good way of getting people together and you meet people from other branches who you wouldn’t normally meet.”
Timpson at a glance
Founder William Timpson would probably agree with the old adage “never buy cheap shoes”. Great grandfather of current chief executive John Timpson, he started his first shoe shop in 1865, at the age of 16. Timpson as we know it today started in 1903, when the first shoe repair factory opened.
By the late 1920s, the firm had 100 shops and became a public limited company. However, the shoemaking arm of the firm was eventually hit by the trend for cheap footwear and trainers. In the 1980s, John Timpson sold the shoe shops to Oliver of Leicester, keeping his shoe repair business.
In 2003, Timpson bought The Minit Group, which included Mister Minit, Supasnaps and Sketchley. Although it then sold Supasnaps and Sketchley, the company kept some of the dry cleaning and photo processing units. Timpson now has over 550 stores nationwide, employing over 1,700 staff.
Defined benefits scheme open to all employees with one year’s service. Employer contributions of 9%.
Private medical insurance from Bupa for senior executives. Voluntary HSA healthcare cash plan.
90% discount on Timpson services and 50% off products.
Available to area management grade and above.
Gym and sporting activities
Onsite gym for employees based in head office. Company football and golfing days.
Staff can access an employee assistance programme from Icas.
Hardship loans at 5% interest for staff with domestic emergencies.
20 days as standard. Up to five days extra after staff pass certain lengths of service or grades.
Work-life balance Range of flexible working options available to all staff. £25 Mothercare voucher for new parents. £20 trouser allowance for expectant mums.
Team social events organised locally.
Subsidised on-site facilities at Timpson’s Manchester head office.