During the summer, I received some sad news: Bill Branston, my first real boss, died at the age of 102. I will always be grateful to Bill, who was my manager and mentor for three months while I worked as a shop assistant in the Timpson Shoe Shop in Railway Street, Altrincham.
Despite an age difference of nearly 40 years, Bill knew how to talk to me. He taught me how to look after the stock, serve customers, dress the shop window and wrap up a pair of Wellington boots using nothing but paper and string. I never did master Bill’s final flourish when he cut the string with his bare hands, though (he would have been great on The Generation Game).
Most of my training took place on the shop floor, but every break time, Bill and I went to the basement for a cup of tea. That was where he told me stories – and sometimes told me off. He made the job fun and set an example.
Thirteen weeks with Bill lit my enthusiasm for retailing that still burns strongly 48 years later.
When Bill retired, he emigrated with his wife, Hilda, to be near their daughter, Janet, in Australia. But Bill was not suited to doing nothing and soon found a new role as a fire fighter, using his selfless nature for the good of the community, and becoming a bit of a legend.
I met Bill again when Alex and I went to Sydney for the Olympics in 2000. Bill, then aged 96, took us out for lunch where he spent nearly two hours talking about his old shop and his trainees.
For years, every young management protégé at Timpson was moulded by Bill. I was amazed by his memory. Thirty-four years on, he could remember the names of customers, most of the shoe stock numbers, and his trips to the bank with me as an escort.
In the sixties, shortly after I completed my apprenticeship with Bill, training became government policy and the skills agenda was embraced by the establishment. New acronyms appeared, such as WEP, or work experience people, and YOP, or youth opportunity programme. A training levy caused many to put their travelling expenses against the training budget, and we were courted by an army of training consultants.
To show we had joined the club, we started closing each branch for half an hour every Tuesday morning to carry out shop-floor training.
For 40 years, the fire of formal training has been fanned by a series of government initiatives, bringing a bag of new buzz words to industry training boards. “Gatekeepers”, as they’re called, overseeing government initiatives such as NVQs and New Deal, have created a new way of communicating.
Their new language is used in countless meetings between service providers and facilitators, keen to give away the government’s money to people who follow their guidelines and tick the right boxes.
This new learning agenda has never helped Timpson. There was no Cobbler’s College or Key Cutting Academy, so we had to develop our own apprenticeship scheme, with home-grown Timpson manuals and in-house Timpson skill tests.
Our scheme has worked. The vital ingredient that continues to create stars of the future is our team of apprentice trainers; shop managers working alongside trainees throughout their first 16 weeks, who generously tell them all they need to know about shoe repairing, key cutting, customer service, looking smart and getting to work on time.
“You know, the coaching provided by our branch managers who pass on their experience does far more good than any manual, key competencies, skills agency or training consultant,” my son James said one day as we visited shops. “We should never underestimate the value of an experienced mentor.”
“I totally agree,” I replied. “It’s a lesson I learnt from Bill Branston.”