Timpson has key to giving ex-convicts second chance

Alistair Osborne meets the former criminals putting their past behind them.

Susanna Stephens is laughing as she explains an early quirk of her job.

"It did seem quite weird that I was going out of a prison to cut keys," says the 37-year-old who works for Timpson, the shoe repairer and key-cutter that has been a family business for five generations.

She runs the shop at Potters Bar and conforms to just what chief executive James Timpson looks for in an employee.

"All I’m interested in is personality I want people who are lively, fun, up for it, interesting, engaging."

But Stephens is no conventional recruit because, like 270 other Timpson staff, she joined the company from jail for a while going to work in the day and returning to jail at night, under the Prison Service’s Release on Temporary Licence scheme.

Stephens does not hide from what she did. “I drove a car in an armed robbery,” she says. "It was a post office inside a shop in Doncaster. I got five years."

She ended up in Downview prison in Sutton, Surrey.

"We’ve done wrong but it’s a good thing for employers to look inside prison. I think it’s important you give people a second chance."

Timpson is a pioneer of that. Today, 10pc of its workforce are ex-convicts, or Foundation Colleagues as it calls them.

Russell Zecanovsky, 40, is another. He runs the shop just outside Wimbledon station.

"I think it’s better what Timpson’s doing than what the prisons are doing," he says. "I’d been to prison three times before I joined Timpson and I had no rehabilitation at all really. With Timpson they are giving you a career."

His crimes were mainly drug-related. "Last time I was inside for growing cannabis," he says. "They said we had a million pounds worth. We didn't, it was half that probably. We'd rented a five-bedroom house and set it up there."

Zecanovsky got 30 months in Wandsworth prison. "If I'd just come out again I would have probably fallen back into the same routine," he says. "You go to job interviews and they ask you if you've got a criminal conviction and if you say yes you're immediately at the bottom of the pile. There's no rehabilitation for prisoners outside prison apart from companies like Timpson that are prepared to give you the chance."

It's James Timpson, son of chairman John, who's mainly responsible for that. He started employing former prisoners 10 years ago. "I was invited to go round Thorncross in Warrington," he says. "They gave me a guide, Matthew, who was about 18 and I really liked him. So I said 'when you're out, don't tell anybody, but I'll give you a job'. He's still with us today. He's brilliant."

Timpson decided to "get a few more. And that's when I started to make a lot of mistakes. I got the wrong people. I fell for all the bullshit stories. I was paying off people's debts."

He would phone the jail governor, who would put prisoners up for interview. But Timpson quickly discovered that "for lots of people having a job would be the least useful thing for them in their life.

A third of people in prison are right for employment, a third have significant health problems which means they are not ready for employment and a third are people I would not want to have in my business," he says. "That's either because of the crimes they committed - we don't employ any sex offenders or if they are just bad b******s."

With his initial recruits, he had "just about any scenario you could make up. I'd put them in shops and they'd nick money off us. They'd fight in the shop. Their drug dealer mates would be coming in. If it's going to go wrong it goes really wrong."

Timpson calls this period "polishing my recruitment nose", during which "I didn't tell anyone what I was doing, apart from my dad". It was only after he had "10 good ones" out of about 40 recruits that he told Timpson's senior team. 

The initial reaction was "yes you're completely mad", he says, until he explained who he had hired and his colleagues agreed "well, these 10 guys are good".

Once the news was out, there was one downside. "We started to have lots of really bad headlines Killer Cobbler, Lag Cuts Keys. So I decided to be really open about it and since then we've had no bad press." Other companies, including baker Greggs and Boots, are now starting to follow Timpson's lead.

Having refined its recruitment techniques, the company today has "two colleagues going round prisons interviewing and mentoring", says Timpson. 

They work with about 70 prisons, mainly category C or D jails the former the most relaxed typed of closed prisons, the latter open prisons. Timpson has also three "academies" in Liverpool, New Hall and Blantyre House jails where prisoners can learn the trade.

Interviews take about 10 minutes. "It is important how they tell me about their offence," says Timpson. "I like the ones where there's a pause, where they know what they've done is wrong. We probably select one out of 10."

He avoids "anything to do with gangs" but "we have a few murderers. Those guys I specifically vet. The only ones we employ are someone who murdered their next door neighbour because he was abusing his daughter and a couple of ladies who murdered their partners due to physical violence against them.

"Mostly though it's acquisitive crime or drugs. There's a similar pattern: in care or failed at school, got in with a bad lot, started drugs, drinking, nicking cars, got banged up. Most people we have have been to prison more than once. But they get to a stage where they want to get a job and be normal and stop the chaos."

That, though, is easier said than done. The ROTL scheme helps. Timpson says the company has "about 40 men and women working for us who go back to prison at night", including six who manage the shop. 

"They take the money, serve the customers, bank the money, lock the door and then go back to prison," he says, adding: "One of the first things we do is give them the money to bank. If you give someone £2,500, it's a sign we trust them."

When prisoners are released, he says, the key thing is that "if you leave jail today you start working for us tomorrow. The longer the gap, the more likely it is there'll be problems". If recruits don't have anywhere to live, "we'll find somewhere and pay the deposit. They are pretty damaged these people. If you just expect them to turn up and work the next day it's not going to happen."

In return, he says, he gets two qualities other workers struggle to match. "They're more loyal and, after being in prison, obsessed with turning up on time," he says.

Both Stephens and Zecanovsky would vouch for that. "Tesco couldn't nick me. It does make you loyal," she says, while Zecanovsky ventures: "My way of life was if someone does you a favour you owe them. Timpson's done me a big favour. I'd never do anything to upset them."