Jonathan Warburton explains why his family’s business is well placed to rise to the challenges of the future. Julian Hunt reports

Jonathan Warburton points out of the window of his office in Back O’ Th’ Bank House, the quaint-sounding HQ of Warburtons bread firm, of which he is chairman, and by following his finger you can just about see where his family’s business started life - in a small shop on Blackburn Road, Bolton, in 1876. The head office itself is built on the site of the first purpose-built bakery opened by the family way back in 1915 (the name pays homage to that fact). And the key directors running the place are proud to be fifth-generation members of the family.
Clearly, this is a business steeped in history. But while its values are rooted in the past, there’s no way it could be described as backward-looking. From those humble beginnings on Blackburn Road, Warburtons has grown into the country’s largest independent bakery, employing almost 4,000 people, with 13 sites turning out more than two millon products a day, giving it a near-national profile and presence. And on the day we meet, its new, £60m super bakery at Tuscany Park, Wakefield, is starting to produce its first buns.
“It’s a lot of money,” acknowledges Warburton of the company’s latest facility. “But we are not an organisation that toddled along for 10 years without growth and then suddenly decided to build Europe’s biggest bakery. You have to remember that since the early 1990s we have built six big plants - so we know how the model works. And in the past few months we have bought two smaller plants in Stockton and Newport from a competitor that are cheap capacity by our standards. Wakefield’s a big punt. But there’s history to it.”
The current chapter in Warburtons’ history was opened in the early 1990s when three cousins - Ross (now a director), Brett (now the MD) and Jonathan - took over the running of the business. Back then, one of their immediate priorities was to refocus what had become a mini-conglomerate with interests in everything from shops in the US to a fish farm, private- label cake manufacture to savoury baked products. It was, admits Warburton, the company’s chairman since 2001, a ragbag collection of businesses.
So the trio set about consolidating activities into what they knew best: making bread. As Warburton explains: “The decision was taken to concentrate on what we ultimately felt we were best suited to do. It was the only business with our name over the door. The last business to go was Soreen [sold to Inter Link in 2003], which we felt was better served in someone else’s hands because the capital requirements of this business meant we would starve it of real investment.”
Alongside the clearer focus of the past decade or so came the ambition to build the brand outside its northern heartland. Scotland was conquered in the back end of the 1990s, while Warburtons’ ever-more aggressive drive southwards saw the business open a bakery in Enfield in 2003.
There’s a little way to go yet before the brand is truly national, but its chairman is in no hurry. “We are not really south of the Thames yet. But we just quietly get on with it. We are determined to have a national position but will not compromise on quality or freshness. Being private means our shareholders don’t care if it happens tomorrow or in 2008. They want us to do it properly.”
Quality and freshness. You will hear these words a lot at Warburtons. And you will also hear a lot about how it strives to live up to this ethos - by investing heavily in everything from the way it sources wheat in Canada and the UK to the use of heated loading bays and vans. It believes such efforts are necessary to produce the best-tasting bread on the market; bread that consumers feel deserves to carry a hefty premium over rival products.
Why go to such lengths? Simple, says Warburton: “Someone else will always be cheaper or faster or have something on which they can outgun you. So you need to have your unique proposition.”
He adds: “We have to make ourselves as unique as we can so that all our customers, large and small, say: ‘We have got to have Warburtons’. There may be bits they don’t like but the aim is to become a must-stock item.”
That philosophy has not changed, even as the company has grown rapidly, says Warburton.
“We have tried to give the business an extremely clear vision of where it is headed and have provided the professional managers with the financial wherewithal and tools to achieve that.”
But there are challenges. “The hardest job for the family is making sure that, culturally, the Warburton employees in, say, Enfield have a sense of what has made us tick over the years. We can’t do that by osmosis, so the family has a responsibility to be visible.”
What about the other big challenge facing any family firm, namely succession management? It’s early days on that score. For starters, the next generation is still in school and Warburton is clear there will be no pressure on them to take over - nor will there be any guarantees of a job just because of their surname. The issue is clearly discussed, but Warburton is adamant that he and his cousins remain fully committed to the cause and are a long way off having to make any decisions about how the business is managed in the future. One thing is clear, however: the Warburtons’ name will be on top of the Back O’ Th’ Bank House for many years to come.
Describe your CV:
Well, I have been with the business for 26 years - and was made chairman in March 2001, taking over from my cousin Ross. Before that I was joint MD with my other cousin, Brett. I have also been head of both marketing and sales and I joined the business as a national account executive, spending five years there. The great thing about my job is that it’s my name over the door. So doing my current role is a real privilege and I try to make the most of it.
What are the strengths of the family team?
Family businesses can all fall down if the dynamics of the family do not work. That has not happened. We were lucky the business was big enough for three 30-somethings to come in and all have grown-up jobs and responsibilities. Our backgrounds are very different so Ross, Brett and I have not gone around tripping over one another. We are also young enough, ugly enough and interested enough to remain fully committed to the cause.
What do you do outside Warburtons?
I’m quite boring really: it’s business and family. I would love to make myself sound more glamorous but I’m pretty normal.
On the business side, I am a non-executive director of Samworth Brothers. There’s always the temptation to do more non-exec roles, but going plural is not for me.
I am married with four kids - a 13-year-old daughter, twin boys aged 12 and a seven-year-old boy. The eldest are away at school and so I spend a lot of time on the touchline watching them play hockey, rugby and cricket.
I also play a bit of golf - but I don’t have time for much else.
We are determined to have a national position but will not compromise on quality or freshness… Warburtons’ shareholders want us to do it properly