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28 April 2021

John Timpson Q&A: “With all the dramas of life, I had no need for Coronation Street“

The owner of Timpsons discusses working with his son, The Nordstrom Way by Robert Spector and his dream of writing headlines for the Sun. 

By New Statesman

John Timpson was born in Cheshire in 1943. He is the chairman and owner of his family’s shoe repair and key-cutting business and is known for his “upside-down management” style and his commitment to employing ex-offenders.

What’s your earliest memory?

On my first day at preschool I sobbed my heart out. A taxi picked me up at the end of our road. Another four-year-old, Simon Cussons, was already on board. Simon remained a friend for the rest of his life.

Who are your heroes?

As a child I was a junior member of Lancashire County Cricket Club and my hero was fast bowler Brian Statham. My adult hero is my late wife, Alex, who always got a buzz from helping others.

What book last changed your thinking?

It has to be The Nordstrom Way by Robert Spector and Patrick D McCarthy, about a US department store chain. The management chart is upside down: that told me how to run our business.

[See also: Ibram X Kendi Q&A: “Racism is harming white people and they don’t notice it”]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, my aunt, a mathematician, astronomer, educationist, international hockey player and lord mayor of Manchester. She was profoundly deaf from the age of eight and was still writing about mathematics just before she died at the age of 101.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Shopping since 1960: I saw the high street change from Mac Fisheries and Freeman, Hardy & Willis to Primark and Lidl.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The 1920s (upstairs, not downstairs) where, while enjoying the jazz age, I would help my grandfather double the size of our shoe shop business in a decade.

[See also: Jason Hickel Q&A: “I was kidnapped as a toddler”]

What TV show could you not live without?

It would be difficult to exist without the sports channels but I’ve never been hooked on any of the soaps. With all the dramas of the business and our foster children, I had no need for Coronation Street.

Who would paint your portrait?

Although LS Lowry could have made me look slimmer, Alastair Adams painted my portrait 15 years ago. I was happy with the result so don’t need another one.

What’s your theme tune?

When I did radio interviews in the 1970s I was invariably and irritatingly introduced by Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”, but my favourite choice on Desert Island Discs was Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways”. It reminds me of Alex.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

If you have a disagreement with your wife, let her win. I follow that advice today with my son James, my CEO. It helps a father and son work together in harmony.

[See also: Gruff Rhys Q&A: “Chelsea Manning is a Welsh-American icon”]

What’s currently bugging you?

Finding an answer to this question.

What single thing would make your life better?

Having a tech-savvy grandchild next door.

When were you happiest?

When I drove my daughter Victoria to Wembley for the Live Aid concert in 1985. I set off doing dad’s duty but was pitched into the middle of the most magical day.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would love to be a journalist – ideally writing headlines for the Sun.

Are we all doomed?

We will all individually die but I’ll end my life optimistic that ingenuity will overcome human failings and ensure the world’s survival.

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas