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Philanthropy: No frills philanthropy

John Timpson, the fourth-generation CEO of the Timpson Group, tells Marc Smith why philanthropy is such a personal affair to both him and his extended family

It's slightly disconcerting when, as I begin talking to John Timpson about his philanthropic beliefs, he states that philanthropy is not a word he uses. But this is perhaps because giving is not a badge of honour he is looking to attain, nor a means to wider recognition and reward. While some philanthropists want to see their name up in lights, the fourth-generation CEO of the Timpson Group just wants to see results.

"What I am interested in are projects I can understand and where I can actually see what's happening to the money," he says. "Rather than putting a large amount of money into a big pot – where inevitably quite a bit gets lost on admin – I like to get in at the ground level. If we can help them with their development then so much the better."

Timpson Group was founded in 1865 as a shoe retailing business but fell out of family hands in 1973 until John bought it back in the 1980s. Today it trades from 630 shoe repair, key cutting, engraving and watch repair sites throughout the UK and Ireland. The group also includes a 24-hour locksmith company and the UK's largest manufacturer of house signs.

The family business has adopted the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's telephone advice service ChildLine as its corporate charity – for which it has raised over €1.9 million through a wide range of initiatives. Timpson himself views children as his philanthropic mission and there is a unique reason why this is so, as second son Edward explains.

"My parents were foster parents to 86 children," he said. "They gave a great deal of their time and their love to the children they fostered." John's wife was trained as a nursery nurse and, when Edward went to school, she decided to welcome children into the family homes instead of getting an office job. Not content with that, the family adopted two children of their own.

While there are those who put a lot of weight on creating a philanthropic legacy, John comes from a polar opposite perspective. "The only legacy I'm after is the business," he says. You can blow a lot of money putting your name on the front of a university or medical centre, he continues, although he understands why they do it.

"In the world of education particularly, it is in their mind that they are doing something positive that is going to help future generations. But I am much more interested in being involved in something today."

While the individual projects are important to John, the people he works with are too. "I only want to work with people that I respect and understand," he says. This does not, however include independent philanthropic advisors of which there are growing numbers. "When it comes to my personal life I have a financial advisor who helps me because, as with most businessmen in my position, we are pretty useless at looking after our own money," he says. "But in terms of someone telling me where I should give the money? No, I prefer to do that myself."

John likes to keep his philanthropy simple and that applies to how it is organised too. There is no charitable trust – as the family owns 100% of the business it funnels all of its donations through it, which John says is "extremely sensible because it means we can do what we want."

With a tight rein over both the company and the philanthropy, the Timpson family does not separate between its family and business giving. "As far as I'm concerned there is no difference," says John. It is, as for many families across the world, just part of what the Timpsons do – no moniker is needed to describe it.

Timpson Group was named a joint winner of the JPMorgan Private Bank and Institute for Family Business UK Family Business Honours Programme.

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